“We who had come to discover
found ourselves discovered
and, in the process, discovered
This book has been written with a great deal of pride as it weaves a narrative around the facts of the first New Zealand All Blacks your back in 1905. The Originals, as they came to be known, faced not just the mind boggling adventures of being overseas but turned from unknown names on a ships passenger list into famous legends.
They faced cheating, hostility and petty acts of jealously but above all they found fame as they toured England, Scotland, Wales, France and played a couple of games in the US. The record of the tour is staggering with only one defeat, and that is still being debated, and a points tally that rightly made them legends.
What Jones does is takes a largish cast of people and in a style that reminds you of a diary or even poetry weaves a story from the moment the boat leaves New Zealand to its arrival in England. The team, which struggles with homesickness and the conditions but maintains a pride in its performance that last until the very end.
An author using the skeleton of facts about team selection and scores has the option to either stick largely to the facts and fill in the blanks with a narrative based on diaries or to depart from reality and go off into the flights of fantasy. Jones is sympathetic, almost in awe, of the characters and that comes across in this book. But it also chimes in with his larger themes as a writer.
There is a theme that echoes Mister Pip which is about the idea of taking yourself out of a location and seeing how the changed environment helps you discover yourself. here the team find that away from what they know, the sights and smells of home, they are not only drawn closer together but in those moments of leisure time find themselves developing interests in different things, art and culture, and see sights that will never leave them. Going through that experience is as important as the scores run up at the thirty odd games they played on tour.
Although the All Blacks are now an almost invincible rugby team the 1905 tour was a period when they were not only completely unknown but when the black kits with the silver fern leaf were first introduced. The legend that most of us now take for granted was born on that tour. Despite that Jones leaves you wondering at the end of the book just why so little has been done to commemorate the achievements of the Originals. Even as someone completely unfamiliar with those men and their achievements you end up feeling the same. But of course The Book of Fame is its own commemoration and one that takes the legend of the All Blacks to a completely.
Occasionally you come across a book where the style of the text and presentation is as much of the experience and that is the case here.
As the All Blacks set sail in 1905 on a voyage to arrive in the UK to play 37 games against almost every team you can think of the story starts like a diary. Because rugby teams include a largish number of players it is hard to get to grips with the main characters.
But after a while you realise that knowing the names is enough as this is a study of a group of people that are very tight knit reacting almost as one to the experience of travel, meeting different people and crucially fame.
Above all else the book, of course the title gives it away, is about fame and the impact that being thrust into the limelight has on the All Blacks. As you follow them through their British and Irish tour the fame spreads and you start to wonder what might come in the second half when presumably that fame catches up with them at home.
As the village becomes trapped in the civil war with both sides looking for a reason to inflict a bit of pain and suffering Watts and Pip take centre stage with the former assuming the fictional character’s identity. That proves to be a risky strategy but one that fills Matilda with yet more evidence of how inspirational literature can make someone make extraordinary decisions.
Inspired she then goes on to make some decisions of her own that are always set against the backdrop of the touchstone that is Great Expectations. The last section of the book perhaps suffers from losing the tension on the island. All the way through the theme has been around the question of fiction and reality and perhaps searching for the truth and tying up some loose ends meets with a literary convention but it would have been more profound had it been absent.
A review will follow soon…
The enigmatic character of Mr Watts starts to catch the imagination not just of the main character Matilda but also her mother who is confused and scared by the teachings of the white man.
A classic clash of ignorance and knowledge reverts to a more tangible one of God against the devil with the non-believer of Watts becoming a target for Matilda’s mother. That anger spills over into theft and when the village is raided by one of the sides in the civil war the pebbled tribute that the young girl has made to Dicken’s character Pip from Great expectations leads to complications.
Who is Pip is the question the fighters demand? Showing them the book would settle it but the book has gone missing. Of course the question who is Pip is the fundamental one for all of the children in the school as well as for Watts himself. Is Pip, a boy who left his roots to chase great expectations an inspiration, for Watts is the world of Pip’s London an escape from the island. Who is Pip is more of a fundamental question than the one the fighter’s initially pose.
Only just started this and already you get the feeling it is going to be a clever interweaving detailing how fictional characters and the power of the written word can sustain people in extreme circumstances.
The villagers of a community that exists by the sea are introduced to the world of Dickens and Great expectations via the last remaining white man who has stayed behind after the miners left. In the face of a civil war the small seaside community gathers round the school as the focal point to rebuild the community and inside Pop Eye, an englishman far from home, introduces them to the world of Victorian England.
In some respects it feels like a cross over with a cinematic experience because so far it could easily have been the first 10 minutes of a film. See if the rest manages to keep that going.