50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Lloyd Jones
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.
Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.
The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones (Penguin) | Montana Book Award 2001
Lloyd Jones writes:
I was asked to present a paper at a conference called ‘Literature and Sport’ hosted by Vincent O’Sullivan and Lydia Wevers at the National Library. This was in the late 1990s, at a time when sport was seen to be under-represented on our bookshelves. A vital thread in our society had failed to engage the imaginations of our novelists and poets. Its absence on our shelves was puzzling and hard to explain. At the conference, it was my task to do so. I ended my talk by saying, ‘And, how about this for a story?’ A bunch of Nobodies had set off by ship on a rainy day in July 1905 and nine months later return as heroes welcomed into Auckland harbour by a flotilla, the premier and twenty thousand exultant people lining Queen Street – its Homeric echoes in full blast – and I asked, ‘Why hasn’t someone written that story?’ I never realised at the time that I would be the one to do so. But I didn’t begin a word until I came across this line in Michael Ondaatje’s book of poems Handwriting: ‘We began with myth and later included actual events.’
Well, we had the ‘facts’, but had forgotten to stamp the myth. I didn’t have a genre in mind when I began. The book just seemed to fall out of me, and in the way it did – fragments, some lines with poetic ambition, and other lines drifting out of steam…as though the literature of the undertaking was itself speculative. I suppose it was also an advantage to be writing about a game I knew extremely well as a former player and follower. In addition to this, the shape of the narrative was provided by a departure and homecoming. So the bones of the project were in place before I wrote the first line.
I spent time in the British Newspaper Library – these days accessible through our own National Library. But, back then, it meant a crappy journey on the Northern Line to some shithole outlying neighbourhood of the metropolis. I don’t remember the name of the station I got off at each morning, but what has stuck is the memory of rain-soaked streets and everywhere a smell of neglect.
Much of the book was written on the hoof, on trains, and in situ. I visited some of the grounds, choosing those at the start and end of the tour. In Llanelli, Wales, one grey day in a miserable café I pulled the plug, and thought either I carry on up the line to Swansea or head to Paris where the team went to after the UK, and before sailing on to New York. A spontaneous decision made for personal gratification but which, as it turned out, served the book better than soldiering on through Wales. I also spent quite a bit of time in the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North where the photos used in the book were sourced. Penguin NZ under Geoff Walker’s stewardship did a wonderful publishing job including a terrific cover of the regulation team photo with a splash of gold to anoint their faces. The legendary Chong at Text rivalled it with an enormous prow of a ship bursting from the cover.
The Book of Fame has generated more letters and feedback than any other of my books aside from perhaps The History of Silence. I have been amazed, and continue to be, by that book showing up in unexpected places, and as recently as two years ago a friend took a photo of The Book of Fame in the window of a New York bookshop. Who would have thought?
Extract from The Book of Fame (Penguin)
Mangamahu. In frigid Scotland a word didn’t come any more exotic than Jimmy Hunter’s patch.
For some of us Scotland meant going ‘home’. Billy Stead pictures himself knocking on and old wood-splintered door in Girvan. For now though he sits in the carriage practising reef knots with his boot laces, pulling one end then the other, seeing how well his Māori and Ayrshire strands knit together. Part of him is going home. Part of McDonald and Glasgow. Part of Jimmy Duncan. A lesser part of Freddy Roberts. A smidgeon of Seeling and Tyler.
At Edinburgh we stepped from the carriages to the cheers of 300 New Zealand and Australian medical students. We waved and shouted back at one another across the divide of tracks and steam. A lone brisk Scots official found Mister Dixon and pointed the way to where the transport from the station awaited us. Through the shifting vapour and steam we looked around for the dignitaries. Well, what do you know. Edinburgh was the first town where the Mayor failed to meet us.
Scotland was the only union in the United Kingdom to refuse us a guaranteed sum ahead of the match. The Scots had lost money on the Canadian tour the year before and didn’t want to invite the same again. So, at Inverleith, we would split the gate. The Scots had not foreseen the fame that rolled out ahead of us, and all week the English newspapers had poked fun at them for offering us the gate; now the Scots looked to retaliate in a variety of petty ways.
We heard that they planned to play a mystery formation against us. We heard they would not be awarding their players ‘caps’ as they did not regard the match as a ‘true international’.
Thursday night we put our boots outside our door to be cleaned and found them in the morning stuffed with stale bread crusts. We shook our heads. It would never happen at home.
We spent the day looking over the city, visiting castles, fountains, busts, and stamping warmth into our feet.
Saturday we woke to a freeze and news that the Scots had failed to protect the ground with hay.
That would never have happened at home!
Then the Scottish captain, Bedell-Sivright, in the company of an official, turned up at the hotel to suggest we call the game off as the ground was rock hard and possibly dangerous. So Billy Stead, Mister Dixon, Jimmy Hunter and Billy Wallace went off with the Scots to see for themselves.
They found the ground was already packed with cold spectators. The crowd seemed to sniff out thoughts of abandonment in the Scottish pair, and seeing Bedell-Sivright prod the turf they began to chant — ‘Play! Play! Play!’ We had no thoughts of denying them and after we said as much, Bedell-Sivright gave a stiff nod and marched away with the official. We shook our heads and pretended to be amused.
But we knew, didn’t we, it would never happen at home.
The noise of the turnstiles clicking over did give us pleasure.
The Scots niggle hadn’t yet finished. They wanted 35-minute halves; we wanted 45-minute spells. Then the Scots insisted we provide the match ball, but of course we had not even thought to bring one to the ground. The Scots officials shrugged and sighed and looked lost. Jesus H! We shook our heads with disbelief.
It would never happen at home.
In the end, a shapeless ball was squirrelled up from a dusty corner under the stand.
The game was late starting when one of the horses bringing the Scots’ wagon to the ground skidded on ice and fell over; there was a delay until another horse arrived, and because of this, there was no time for the traditional team picture to be taken.
As the Scots were led out by a pipe band we noticed their boots had been fitted with ‘bars’ like those that ice skaters wear. We wore our customary studs — by the end of the game our feet were a mess of blood blisters.
The Scots won the toss and kicked off. For the first ten minutes we were all over them like a mad dog’s rash. Fred worked the blind and Billy Wallace dashed over in the corner — but he was called back. The referee ruled the pass was forward. Fred stuck his hands on his hips and glowered. He’d never thrown a straighter pass. Moments later George Smith was clear, the line ahead, when the whistle went for another alleged ‘forward pass’.
The referee strolled around like a farmer with his crook making his way through a herd, without hurry or urgency, and was seldom placed to appreciate the shape of our game.
The Scots made little effort to attack. They either hugged the touchline or stood in the pockets of our backs. The penalties awarded us were of no use. We couldn’t dig a hole in the ground in which to place the ball for a shot at goal. Billy Glenn, who was linesman, produced a pocket knife for Billy Wallace to dig a hole, but the Scots objected to the practice, so Dave Gallagher had to spread himself over the frozen ground to hold the ball upright for Billy to swing his boot through.
The Scots played three halfbacks against us; that was the mystery formation. The bigger surprise came when they started the scoring — Simpson potting a field goal; the unshapely ball wobbled through the air and scraped over the crossbar. The Scots were up 4-nil and for the first time in nearly three months we were behind on the scoreboard.
Minutes later, Billy Wallace lays on a lovely raking kick cross-field to find the Scots corner flag. Billy is admiring his work when he’s hit by a late charge — his legs fly up and the frozen ground receives his head. Shadows and shapes of all kinds drift in and out of Billy’s brain. As he comes to, the first words he hears are, ‘You all right, Bill?’ ‘Jesus no, I’m not,’ he says. Helped into a sitting position he rubs his eyes and sees O’Sullivan and Gallagher in a heated exchange with one of the Scottish forwards.
Our reply came with Seeling taking a long throw to the lineout and charging upfield. In the tackle he places the ball for Glasgow to kick past Scoullar, the Scottish fullback; Scoullar has to turn and run back and Frank wins the race to fall on the ball over the line.
We were keen to build on that score, but the icy ground took away our feet. We couldn’t feel the turf. We couldn’t prop without our feet sliding out from under.
Instead, we did it by numbers. From a scrum near halfway Fred threw a cut-out pass to Jimmy Hunter. Thereafter it was just a matter of procedure — drawing and passing, Jimmy to Bob Deans with Smithy’s finish in the corner.
Our 6-4 lead ended following a stupid mistake. A ball from a lineout on our line went loose. Two of our players diving for it contrived to knock each other clear and a Scottish forward fell on the ball.
The Scots went to the break up 7-6 and this was another new experience for us. Behind at half time!
The Scots sniffed possibility. The crowd too. They forgot it was freezing. You saw them smiling past their red, dripping noses. The crowd was roped off but the Scots officials marched up and down the sideline shouting encouragement to their boys.
The loose cannon who flattened Billy banged up our forwards as they leapt for lineout ball, but if we retaliated the crowd hooted. Nothing was going our way. The Scots defence got in the way of our back play. We could hear our boys in the stand yelling out to us — ‘Ten minutes! Ten minutes to go! Open it up!’
Four minutes to go we put down a scrum on halfway, fifteen in from the sideline. McDonald and Glasgow won us a clean heel. The Scottish halves, as they had done all game, rushed Fred and Billy Stead. This time Fred threw a lovely dummy and went alone. On an angling run he finds Bob Deans who draws and passes to George Smith, and with soaring hearts and grinfuls of pride we watched George cut infield and swerve out again leaving the last Scotsman on one knee, his hands spread over the cut-up turf. Downfield George carefully placed the ball between the uprights. My God! It was a beautiful sight.
In the stand the medical students were on their feet and yelling. Between the shouts we heard the creeping silence of the Scots.
We carried little George back to halfway on our shoulders.
On the stroke of full-time we picked up bonus points after Cunningham fell on a loose ball over the Scots line, and that was more or less it. Heartbreak at one end of the field. Joy at the other.
In the changing shed Frank Glasgow let the air out of the ball; he’d folded up the leather and packed it away with his kit when a Scots official arrived to demand the ball back. It was our custom for the man who last touched the ball to keep it. We explained this to the official. Gallaher waded into the debate. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘There seems to be some confusion here.’ To the Scots official he said, ‘We are the guests here. At least, I think I’m right in saying that.’ And he looked around for support. ‘Boys? Am I right?’ ‘We are the visitors,’ someone said. ‘But in Scotland it doesn’t necessarily mean you are also guests.’ The Scots official closed his eyes. Two heavy lines appeared where his eyes and mouth had been. In the end, Frank said, ‘To hell with it,’ and threw him the piece of leather. We told him, ‘This would never happen at home. I can tell you, mate!’
We dined alone that night.
© Lloyd Jones, 2000, published in The Book of Fame, Penguin.