The First Tour of England

This could be about the 1905 tour of the All Blacks. Or about my year here.

I could have finished The Book of Fame in half the time it’s taken me. However, I think I’ve been prolonging my reading unconsciously, lingering over the words and soaking them in slowly. Two hundred-odd pages of widely spaced lines oughtn’t to take much time, but when you let the words form pictures in your head, the reading is slow and immensely pleasurable: in a way, you’re hoping that the book won’t come to an end because it gives you the solace you need at the end of the day. You know all the characters and their idiosyncracies; you know what you’re coming home to. You look forward to getting under the duvet, turning on the lamp by your bed, picking up the book that lies on top of the pile on the bedside table and plunging straight in. You don’t need a bookmark because the page number is in your head. Ten more pages before the book ends? Save them for tomorrow.

Coming to the end of a well-loved book is like leaving home for the first time. There is the heart-wrenching parting mingled with the excitement of going out into the world, green, naive and longing for an unknown freedom. Re-reading such a book is also difficult: has it changed with time? Will it disappoint you slightly because you have changed? Disillusionment is one of my biggest fears. However, I’ll offer a limb before I give away the books I cherish the most. I may not read many of them again, but they’ll stay there on those shelves, wrapped up in memories of their own making and of the varied situations they were read in- on the train to work, during a three-day power outage or when I was preparing for the engineering entrance exam and lived in a daze for two years.

The Book of Fame is an account of the New Zealand rugby team’s 1905-06 tour of the UK, France and the USA. It is my third Lloyd Jones book and comes close to shoving Mister Pip off the top of the list. Personal associations probably play a part here; I can’t say. When the blurb talks of a team of men drawn from assorted professions setting off to play rugby on distant shores, you don’t quite know what to expect. Jones merges fact with fiction, as he explains at the end of the book; the statistics and real occurrences are drawn from painstaking work poring through newspapers, and the gaps in the story are filled in by his imagination. Surely sportsmen in a new country do more than just play matches? They arouse public hysteria, break hearts and generate the kind of passion that only sport is capable of.

Jones follows the All Blacks’ journey from the moment they set sail on the SS Rimutaka to the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. They devise games for their time on board, dance and tell stories. Their first glimpse of the coast of England, the land of their forefathers but not quite their home, fills them with mixed emotions. They experience England like children in a toy shop as they travel around: and this is where things began to get eerily interesting for me. The team went to Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Cardiff. I’d just returned from Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Cardiff. Coming straight off a vacation in the north and the west, I was delighted to have the solitude of my study relieved by the haka-peppered chronicles of a band of rugby players who were going around England with the same wide-eyed curiosity I was (and am) exhibiting.

“Visits to cathedrals, abbeys, ruins,
to old prisons,
Invitations to dine, to plays, dramas, music halls,
to shop
and search out
relatives.”

I knew exactly what they meant- nothing could have summed my vacation up better than this, right down to the bit about searching out relatives. I fell completely under the spell of this book and felt gutted at the All Blacks’ only defeat on the tour, to Wales. Edging close to the end of the book, I read just a very little bit every night, savouring every word. Our paths diverged as they went to Paris and to the USA. But they revisited England in their memories, and there was a little homecoming celebration in my head.

Now, the team is all gone.

“The crowds that filled the wharves and Queen Street have gone
Crowds in Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Edinburgh, Paris, across America
all are gone. Dead. Buried. Silent.”

When I next pick up a Lloyd Jones book, I’ll do so with great trepidation. I don’t want this spell to be broken.

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