On a rugby conference

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?

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