Opinionista Ben Williams 5 November 2019

Of tightheads and loose leaves: A peek into the world of the rugby book

Rugby has a mania for books like no other sport.

There are those moments when, having put the finishing touches on your books column early – which affords you not only a pleasing sense of accomplishment, but also the luxury of letting the words rest for a couple of days before sending them off to the editors – the Springboks go and win the Rugby World Cup. 

I should’ve guessed. Webb Ellis bling arrives every 12 years, after all. It’s like clockwork. 

Scrap the previous column, then, and let’s talk about rugby books.

In my salad days, I would reserve Saturday mornings for a stroll up Long Street, Cape Town – a street that was then chock-full of second-hand book dealers. I was on a leisurely hunt for unusual, unlooked-for, underground titles, which South African publishers produce in quantities erratic enough for the occasional discovery of real gold on the shelf. I would do a quick turn-around at Tom’s,  put my head in at Julie Aitchison’s First Edition for a chat, spend an hour on the second floor of Clarke’s, dip a toe in the emporium of an Egyptian émigré who, rumour had it, ran a ring of book thieves, and end up, right at the top of the street, at David McLennan’s Select Books. I bought so many books on these strolls that it’s fair to say I received my South African education on Long Street. (Of these shops, only Clarke’s remains there.)

David’s bookshop specialised in Africana, rugby books and rugby paraphernalia (and still does, though he now operates out of Claremont) and I always found it somewhat incongruous, moving from the chic, café-cultured pavement of billowy Long Street into the quiet, cloistered, green-and-gold bedecked shelves of David’s shop. There, you could get an original programme from a Test match long past; a memoir with playful use of the word “rucking” in its title; ghostwritten biographies of players you’d never heard of; and much else First XV-related besides. For someone like me, on the hunt for obscure fiction, it was like paying respects at the wrong shrine. But I learned a few things about the rugby book business on my visits. 

The first thing I learned is that the rugby book business is a big business. David could command extraordinarily high prices for what looked, to my callow eye, to be just another tawdry reminiscence cooked up in the second half of the year to fill a publisher’s sales gap. There were buyers all over the world for that tawdry reminiscence, beating a path to his door. Rugby publishing had something extra to it that didn’t seem to apply to other sports; a mania of sorts; a culture more akin to the world of pigeon fanciers than, say, that of cricket or soccer fans. 

The second thing I learned was that, just as in the sport itself, timing is everything when it comes to rugby publishing. If you’re a Springbok, for instance, it helps to publish your memoir after you’ve won a World Cup: compare Jake White’s In Black and White (co-written with Craig Ray), which, 12 years later, remains a revered tome, with the hapless Corné Krige’s The Right Place at the Wrong Time, which sank from sight, like the 2003 Springboks in Australia, almost upon publication. 

In Black and White is arguably the most successful South African rugby book ever, having sold well over 50,000 copies. Its timing was perfect: it came out right at the tail end of 2007, the Springboks’ triumph in France mixing giddily with South Africans’ festive-seasonitis, and no whiff of the 2008 bonfire of the world financial system yet in the air. The public hoovered the title up. To this day, you can’t book a country AirBnB without finding Jake’s joyful face inside it, gracing one of the dusty bedside tables in the second bedroom with bad light.

This leads me to a concern about the 2019 crop of rugby books, whose health is rather less robust than the 2019 crop of rugby players. Nowhere is this more the case than with the book on World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi’s life, already out, having hit the shelves in August. Siya Kolisi: Against All Odds by Jeremy Daniel – which Kolisi has distanced himself from – languishes near the bottom of the top 100 books in the land, and it’s likely that, although it will undoubtedly get a boost from Saturday’s heroics, the timing was off, and it may remain lost in the tumult of publishing that overwhelms bookshops at this time of year.

(This, of course, has the happy consequence of leaving room for another book on Kolisi – namely, a biography written or sanctioned by him. Now he’s got his hands on a World Cup trophy, it should do rather well. I wonder if any publishers have got his signature on a contract yet? There are rumours of a title, Growing Up Grey, in the works.)

One book that won’t be lost is Beast by Tendai Mtawarira and Andy Capostagno. Originally due in July, it seems retrospectively fortuitous (to put it mildly) that it was delayed until this month. It will now blast its way through the bedlam that is year-end bookselling like Rassie Erasmus’s Bomb Squad.

My advice? Go to the Beast’s launch and grab a piece of – shall we call it – rugbycana. Get your copy signed. Who knows, maybe one day David McLennan will make you an offer for it. ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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