Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Cups, Pucks, Rucks and Reading

Public bus in Canuck ice hockey team strip, downtown Vancouver.
Eleven thousand kilometres: it’s a long way from a game of rugby — but somehow I managed without the Rugby World Cup during a month in Canada. It may have something to do with being a supposed rarity, a Kiwi who’s not into sport. Or perhaps it was because in the land of the puck and the Stanley Cup, the oval ball was still (conversationally) kicked in my direction now and then.

At a LitFest (non-fiction festival) event in Edmonton, an author signing his book for me enquired if I was South African, then tried to make up for it by presuming I was excited about the rugby. At the Vancouver International Writers Festival, the obligatory words about tearing himself away from the World Cup introduced New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Then one night in downtown Vancouver a fellow Kiwi who must have overheard what a Canadian friend calls my “ixcint” followed me off the bus, telling me she was looking for “the game” — the final, I suddenly recalled, New Zealand versus France — and some “young ones” to watch it with.

I don’t know if it’s true that we’re “even more fanatical” about rugby than the Welsh,* but after a lifetime of bemused looking on (I’m a spectator of rugby spectators rather than of the game itself) I have to concede that as a nation we are fairly interested, at the very least. Not that we always look it. At the Vancouver festival’s grand opening, one of my Canadian companions interpreted Jones’s laconic response to the MC’s introduction as complete indifference to rugby. On the contrary, I said: he’s really keen. Perhaps I should have taken the opportunity to deliver an impromptu lecture in Kiwi Culture 101.

Lloyd Jones, world famous since Mister Pip found a place on the 2007 shortlist of the Booker Prize, was world famous in New Zealand before that. Although he initially made waves here with work such as Biografi (1993, contentious for its defiance of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction), his Book of Fame (2000) really made his name.

That award-winning novel is about the real-life 1905 tour of Britain by New Zealand’s rugby “Originals” and, having recommended it to numerous people over the years, I’ve decided it’s time I read it again — to see if I can get away with recommending it to my even more non-sporting parents and brother, also to find out if it’s still one of my favourite New Zealand novels. Sadly, it wasn’t on sale at the Vancouver festival (though his latest novel, Hand Me Down World, was). Now I’m home I’ve ordered it from the public library, together with a recent edition of Australia’s Griffith Review in which Jones “reveals how childhood rugby and a reverence for the All Blacks shaped his adult sensibilities and success beyond the Wellington suburbs”.

Ah, the public library. Apart from the passing mention above, does this post on this Latitude of Libraries blog have anything to do with the public library, really, readers may wonder? Well yes, it does. New Zealand, it’s been said more than once,** is about rugby, racing and beer. Maybe we need to rethink that and say instead that New Zealand is about rugby, reading and pies, or some other combination where the presence of libraries is at least implied. Watch this:

It’s a great little video about our love of public libraries (and rugby), released just ahead of this week’s LIANZA (Library and Information Association of NZ Aotearoa) conference. Maker Sally Pewhairangi says it’s in honour of New Zealand’s RWC win; it also celebrates the launch of a new initiative in LIANZA’s “Libraries Count” project. It’ll make you smile — and think.

One of many election issues,
Great South Road, Papakura.
There are plenty of things to think about in the lead-up to New Zealand’s election in a few weeks’ time (the price of pies, for starters) but do spare a thought for our public libraries. They’re far from immune to the penny-pinchitis that has threatened public libraries overseas. For that reason, and because they’re a wonderful thing, I support the national campaign to keep our public libraries both funded and free.

*Former Welsh international John Peter Rhys Williams (1979), quoted in the Reed Book of New Zealand Quotations.
** though possibly first by John Mulgan in his Report on Experience (1947, Reed Book of New Zealand Quotations).

“We share stories” poster and patron at downtown public library branch in Edmonton, Canada.


  1. Loved that video. I have also recommended The Book of Fame to many people. A haunting, moving story even if you are not a rugby fan. I think Latitude of Libraries should be funded to travel further afield. What about the library at Scott Base? Now there's a challenge.

  2. Great idea, Jan! Perhaps I could get sponsorship for the necessary winter wear.