Authors: Lloyd Jones
‘A beautiful meditation on fame that lies somewhere between poetry and prose.’
‘Lloyd Jones is an innovator … a sporting novel that is an intriguing mix of fact and fantasy … marvellously inventive.’
‘An astonishing novel about the 1905 All Blacks. Fashioning the simple spare speech of the ordinary New Zealander into beautifully crafted prose, he has written an instant New Zealand classic.… The truth about the novel and the myth it re-creates is that the fulfilment of any great journey is the discovery of one’s self.’
The New Zealand Listener
‘This is a novel, not history. This is what might have been.… It cuts to the truth of the game in a way endless match reports and profiles rife with clichés never will.’
‘The Book of Fame
is compelling reading … a jewel.’
New Zealand Books
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION,
Published by arrangement with The Text Publishing Company, Australia
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in
. Originally published in hardcover in New Zealand by the Penguin Group (NZ), Auckland, in
. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.
Vintage Canada with colophon is a registered trademark.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
The book of fame / Lloyd Jones.
PR9639.3.J64B66 2011 823′.914 C2010-907218-9
There was no holy water
No one spoke of fame
There were no reliable works
We were left to figure out things for ourselves
There were twenty-seven in our party. Besides George Dixon, our manager, and Jimmy Duncan, coach—
Billy Stead was a bootmaker
Bob Deans, a farmer
Bunny Abbott, a farrier and professional runner
Dave Gallaher, a meatworks foreman
Billy ‘Carbine’ Wallace, a foundryman
Jimmy Hunter farmed in Mangamahu, north-east of Wanganui
Fred ‘Fats’ Newton
Bill Cunningham was a miner
Frank Glasgow, a bank officer
George ‘Bubs’ Tyler, swimmer & boatbuilder
Eric Harper, farmer
George Smith, former jockey, professional runner
Mona Thompson, a civil servant
George Nicholson was a blacksmith & bootmaker
Billy Glenn, farmer
Bill Corbett, miner
& Charlie ‘Bronco’ Seeling
8 August, 1905
A crowd of one hundred braved the sleet and cold to see us off. We stood by with our luggage and football boots, our collars turned up against the weather, aboard the SS
, and slowly like a big log wedged then freeing itself mid-stream, our lives came round to port then stern, then out to the Heads, whereupon the tugs dipped their flags; and clinging together the tug men gathered on the foredeck with their farewell song. The wind tore away the last line of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the tugs dropped out of sight, and after that we hit out on our own.
We were Aucklanders, some Otago and Taranaki boys, a few Cantabs and Wellingtonians; Stead was a lone Southlander, Corbett a sole West Coaster, and Hunter came out of a place near Wanganui with a Maori name in which every sound spoke of bush-creeping isolation. The larger sense of who we were hadn’t yet forged itself. But in small telling ways, through gesture and anecdote, we revealed ourselves to one another—
The bookworm in Billy Stead
Mona Thompson’s fondness for setting his hat brim at a low tilt
Eric Harper’s learned ways with cutlery and table napkins
Dave Gallaher’s passion for cards
Jimmy Hunter’s habit of closing his eyes and touching his nose whenever
George Nicholson’s singing
Cunningham’s singing and Frank Glasgow’s piano playing; it only took
a snatch of a melody from Cunningham for Frank to produce the whole works
Bob Deans’ pious ways; his knocking on our cabin doors to rally up a
respectable showing for evening chapel
The devotion of Bill Corbett and Fats Newton to breakfast
The way George Tyler would butter his toast and afterwards, lick each
Cunningham’s love of shovelling coal into the stoker
Seeling’s refusal to do the same
The lags and wisecrack artists emerged
The sleepers—Mackrell, McGregor, Glasgow
Those who were early to bed and jovial and spry at breakfast
Bubs Tyler’s tale of a man he knew who got his kneecap bitten off after
a large shark thought to be dead was paraded through the dance hall in
Those to whom a story was turned over, stone by stone, as if seeking evidence of the ‘true and false’ variety—Was the shark dead? How long had it been out of the water?—and others who sat back and enjoyed it like music.
Second day out we got on with our shipboard training—
‘Chalking the deck’
Cricket with other passengers and crew
Us against ‘the world’
We won that, then turned the ship’s rigging into an obstacle course
We divided the ship and took the lower deck for a ‘training field’—
and congregated on the upper deck using it as a ‘classroom’ for
& passing rushes
On the sixth morning a watch for icebergs was kept
the barometer read 7 degrees below
& the water pipes froze
We were 800 miles south of Bluff
We passed a pod of whales, their sides covered in barnacles
The skies turned to thin glass and it grew steadily colder
Billy Stead stayed up one night to catch an iceberg ‘in its luminous haze … quiet, mystic, not a sound of progress …’
In the morning cold rain and hail drove us indoors, and kept us there; day and night, lanterns swayed in the creaking dark.
We were studying lit diagrams in our laps and George Tyler had put forward his ‘shark story’ to illustrate the value of ‘surprise in unexpected places’ when the wind chopped round to the south-west and a sea struck on the starboard quarter, right against our cabins, with tremendous force.
Portholes were shot through with ocean spray; cabins flooded; some had to pick themselves off the floor.
In the saloon we waded knee-deep in water.
In the smoking lounge, thirty-two feet above sea level, the skylights, strutted with iron bars, broke like matchsticks.
Glass ashtrays washed across the timber floors.
George Nicholson kicked at the spume, yelling at it, ‘Go on, get outa here!’ Mister Dixon shook his head. ‘Fruitless, George, talking back at the sea like that.’
Bill Mackrell, who wasn’t feeling well, simply climbed to a higher bunk. The upper deck received a giant wave and the chef, carrying a bag of flour and a dish of raisins, fell breaking three ribs.
There was a moment when the storm stopped to catch its breath and the skipper and chief engineer said it was the worst storm they’d known, not ever, but since 1893; and that year, 247 wrecks were reported in a single night in the English Channel. Shipwreck? It hadn’t entered our minds until that moment.
The storm passed and we ventured out on deck to an oyster-grey world.
The seas were a grey slop with long traces of spittle.
We looked around and found ourselves walled in by ocean and sky.
We were the only ones out on deck and it was an unpleasant surprise to find ourselves so alone. There were five women in our saloon but we wouldn’t see them again until we’d rounded the Horn and, by then, come in to shirt-sleeves weather. At that moment all of us seemed to know this, and we hunched our shoulders and tried not to look too closely into one another’s cold faces.
Being nowhere in particular, and without traditions to adhere to, we could be whatever or whoever we chose.
At night, awake in his bunk, Bill Cunningham struggled to conjure up ‘the pick ’n’ shovel’ rhythm of his miner’s life—already it felt distant, like a place inhabited by cousins once visited as a child. While you’ve never gone back you can’t forget it either.
He turned his head on his pillow to the oiled walls inches away from his nose.
Mining is forever squeezing yourself into tighter spaces.
At sea, you expand. You develop wings. You lift off.
At sea, you can be anything.
So there he is, dressed up as Neptune,
a ‘minstrel’, and once or twice, even as a woman,
tottering back and forth to Fred Glasgow on piano.
With whole days to kill we found ourselves discovering and favouring one part or another of the ship—
the crafted vee where ship rail meets ship rail to divide the ocean,
the homeward drift of the black funnel smoke.
We were in danger of going our separate ways until Mister Dixon called us together. While we packed our pipes we listened to him propose that, from now on, all knowledge and experience would be pooled. Tomorrow morning we should come into the world as if we had no prior knowledge of it. We should wake up and proceed looking afresh and start the naming process over.
In this way we renamed the stars. On the following nights we tried to remember where we had put them.
Mister Dixon scratched his chin. We were almost there, but not quite, he said. He was more anxious to create ‘an atmosphere’ where we might share and share alike. Tobacco. Stories. Whatever we happened to carry in our pockets or in our thoughts. ‘Let’s crack open that treasure and share.’ In this spirit, those who had wives and girlfriends at home found themselves donating small descriptive features to the men who didn’t, thus allowing them to construct and furnish their own visions.
To get the ball rolling Mister Dixon spoke of Mrs Dixon: ‘… her tsarina pose, chin raised.’ As we watched, Mister Dixon’s placid eyes appeared to fade and drift away from us. ‘I’ve got her in my sights now. It’s a Sunday afternoon and she’s lying along the couch with a book, sun streaming in the window.’
‘… the line of her mouth tightening, eye sparkling … Sometimes,’ says Gallaher, ‘I’d think she was holding back something.’
‘… on Saturdays she’d wear a blue bow in her hair. And I’d say, “Hallo, look who’s come gift-wrapped …” ’ Duncan McGregor raised his eyebrows and hands as if to ask, ‘Will that do? It’s all I’ve got.’