Last week Trevor McKewen wrote of his epiphany about Real Men Wear Black, the bestseller he wrote in 1992. It didn’t sound like the book I read a long time ago as an impressionable young rugby fan, writes Jamie Wall.
I mean, I get what Trevor was saying, that we need to address toxic masculinity in boys so they can grow up to be better men – and fair enough too. Yes, Real Men Wear Black is a celebration of toughness and sacrifice, and it’s fair enough as well that he regrets some of the language used in it. But there are some seriously important themes in it around being a man that aren’t worth completely abandoning.
I should know. I was given a copy for my birthday in 1993, when I turned 12 years old. It’s been on my bookshelf ever since, and I would’ve read it at least a dozen times. According to Trevor, that’s probably a few more times than he has, especially lately.
It’s a collection of short biographies of the ‘hard men’ of the All Blacks and Kiwis. Men like Kevin Skinner, Frank Oliver, Mark ‘Cowboy’ Shaw, Buck Shelford, Kevin Tamati and Mark Broadhurst. Most of it was easy to read, and most excitingly for a pre-teen boy like me it was dosed with a liberal amount of swear words. Yes, the title and its theme seem like a hark back to the ‘good old days’ of when men were men – at least in the eyes of those who lamented the loss of the complete domination of kiwi masculinity.
But even the first time I read it, way back then when rugby was amateur and on-field fighting was still pretty rife, I could tell that there was more to it than it just being a simple catalogue of historical rugby and league violence and injuries. It’s because, to a man, every single subject in the book was uncomfortable with being viewed as an enforcer.
Skinner, by then in his 60’s, was recalling events far removed from 1992, let alone 2019. The former heavyweight boxing champ been coaxed out of retirement in 1956 to deal to the Springbok front row by knocking them out, yet he showed how much time had changed him when he roundly condemned the thuggery of Richard Loe the same year the book came out (tellingly, the infamously unrepentant eye-gouger Loe is a notable omission from the men profiled).
Shaw’s entry was mainly about his spiteful relationship with the media, for what he perceived to be unfair treatment. It includes an anecdote that candidly reveals how it affected him while he was sitting in the stands watching a game, having to overhear a supporter nearby abusing a player on the field he’d mistaken for Shaw. There is even a picture included of the feared All Black flanker helping an old lady across the road.
The main takeaway from the chapter on Shelford, aside from the oft-repeated story about his torn scrotum, was how he used his leadership to bring mana and meaning to the All Black haka. If anything, it’s the most far-reaching action an All Black has ever had on wider New Zealand culture.
In fact, almost the entirety of the chapter on Tamati was about how he didn’t want to be remembered for his sideline punch-up with Australian opponent Greg Dowling at Lang Park in 1985.
This is despite the fact that Tamati details Dowling’s shocking racial abuse (even by the standards of the time) directed at the Kiwi prop throughout the game. It culminated in both men punching the shit out of each other against a chain link fence that surrounded the playing field. I said that most of the book was an easy read, but that’s the bit that isn’t.
Up until then, footy for me had been an innocent pastime that I’d play on Saturdays with my friends. Something I could watch and be inspired by the guys on the field that I viewed as supermen.
Real Men Wear Black, and especially the Tamati chapter, changed all of that. It opened up just how vicious, dirty and hateful not just rugby, but being a man could be. And, how if you choose to take that path, you’re going to end up probably regretting it later in life when someone comes along to hear your story. Because, in the case all of subjects in Real Men Wear Black, there was a man behind his on field deeds that had plenty of other legitimate things to be proud of. It completely transformed the way I think about the game, and its effect on New Zealand society. Most importantly, through their own honest words, it showed that the very real human frailties that existed in the men I looked up to.
I can’t speak for everyone who read Real Men Wear Black, but for me it wasn’t the glorification of violence that Trevor feels as though he needs to apologise for. On the surface, yes I agree with him that it could send an outdated and potentially dangerous message about what it means to be a man. But, like they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
To me, as a kid reading it, Real Men Wear Black was a collection of stories of commitment to your teammates that do have lasting value. That wasn’t all. The most important thing I took away from it was how it showed just what price that commitment comes with.