This was in the late s, 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. 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.
His wife Marianne moved into gaol with him, along with three of their children, a four-year-old, a one-year-old and a newborn baby, and they painted the ceiling of their cell blue to look like the sky, but making fun of power was clearly not to be done lightly. Three themes which I expected to be more prominent were very modestly represented and so some consideration is given to their absence — landscapes, cultural identity and relationships. Amenities include massage on request.
But, back then, it meant a crappy journey on the Northern Line to some shithole outlying neighbourhood of the metropolis. 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. 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.
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? Billy Stead pictures himself knocking on and old wood-splintered door in Girvan. 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. 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.
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. 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.
As an indicator of patterns these poems suggest that contemporary poets are concerned more with compressing time than stretching it. We had no problem with our rooms and the food was generally of a good standard.
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.
They found the ground was already packed with cold spectators. We shook our heads and pretended to be amused. They wanted minute halves; we wanted 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. We shook our heads with disbelief. In the end, a shapeless ball was squirrelled up from a dusty corner under the stand.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Instead, we did it by numbers. From a scrum near halfway Fred threw a cut-out pass to Jimmy Hunter. Our 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 and this was another new experience for us. Behind at half time! 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. Ten minutes to go! 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. 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. 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. Two heavy lines appeared where his eyes and mouth had been. I can tell you, mate!
Matt Bialostocki Fiction and Factions: For a PDF and podcast of the lecture, please follow this link. The brief was broad: Last year I published a novel, my seventh.
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