Earthy foundations for Super structure

BOOK OF THE WEEK; To Jerusalem and Back by Simon Kelner (Macmillan, pounds 14.95)

A group of four of us, walking through London after its launch with a book of this title under our arms, must have looked suspiciously like evangelists for a religious sect. "Many people in this day and age have lost interest in rugby league, but, as you can see here in Chapter Four, Verse iii ..."

The good news, or the bad, depending on your creed, is that my colleague Simon Kelner's book is no fundamentalist testament. I have a feeling that it began as that, as an act of faith and anger, but it mellowed along the way.

"To Jerusalem and Back" sets out to be several things: an interim history of the game; a personal account of falling under its thrall; the story of the Super League revolution and a portrait of its representative in Britain, Maurice Lindsay. It cannot, in 172 pages, do all of these things in detail, but it does them all in enough style for the various strands to benefit from their juxtaposition with each other.

The book would never have been written had it not been for Kelner's passionate affiliation with his club, Swinton, so it should not be surprising that it is the exploration of that relationship, tied up as it is with family and sense of identity, that is its great strength. There has not been much written that compares with it as a picture of what it is to be a rugby league fan.

The history goes over some familiar ground, as it must, but looking at it through the lens of Super League throws the crises of the past into fresh perspective. But the point of the exercise is surely that issue of Super League, and here Kelner's gut reaction of extreme distaste has smoothed out during the writing of this book to a sense of disquiet and uncertainty.

As the cults know, breadth of knowledge is the enemy of simplistic certainty, and Kelner has discovered that there is no straightforward answer to the question: "Well, what would you have done if Rupert Murdoch had offered you pounds 87m?"

You would not have to see too many balance sheets before realising that there is no easy response to that one.

Like many full-scale biographers, Kelner has warmed to his subject in the section of the book that deals with Lindsay and his part in the changes the game is going through. Here he has found, like others before him, that the chief executive of the Rugby Football League can be infinitely more charming and plausible than his public image would ever suggest.

I doubt whether he went into RFL head-quarters thinking so, but the writer came away believing that he and the administrator shared the same goals and differed only on methods and priorities. The result is that the treatment is scrupulously balanced and even goes out of its way to be fair to a controversial figure.

They were worried about this book at the League; they need not have been. It is valuable, but it is not dangerous.


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