An Occasional, Seasonal, Dream

Trigger warning : if you are one of those who believes that other people’s dreams are always and inherently boring, then look away now …
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Every year, at about the same time, I notice that the daffodils that grow perennially in the flowerbeds that border my patio have begun to poke their tips through the topsoil. In fact, I can be more precise. In 2014, I first noticed them on the 2nd of November, in 2015 on 11th November, and this year, on my return from a short holiday in Spain, on 27th November. And, every year, I think that they have come too early.

It may be that I am over-sensitive to the probability of “climate change” (although I am not sure whether this “small data” supports that) : I think, though, my reluctance to see these green shoots too early has more to do with not feeling ready, with the last leaves still clinging bravely to the trees, to think about the Spring quite yet. These shoots, I feel, should be nudging hopefully against an eiderdown of snow, not snuggled under a blanket of fallen leaves.

I felt much the same way when, while in Spain, I was visited prematurely by a recurrent dream that usually saves its first appearance for the darkest nights of Winter, the dream of the forgotten cricket ground.

The most commonly reported dreams involving sport, I’m told, fall into two categories. One includes those where the dreamer finds themselves called upon to play, (often at a higher level than they are used to), and finds that they can perform either much better than they can in real life, or only embarrassingly badly. I have occasionally had dreams of this kind, in which I find that I am incapable of bowling, (the aspect of the game I used to have some slight talent for), in more than slow motion, or, alternatively, that I have been magically transformed into a high-class batsman (which, in real life, was far from the case). But these “performance anxiety” dreams are commonplace enough, easily explicable, and do not concern us here.

The second kind are those dreams involving well-known sporting personalities. These are, apparently, common too, but I seem largely immune to them, in the same way that I don’t think that I have never dreamed about meeting the Queen (or any other member of the Royal Family)*. The only memorable exception was one in which I watched James Taylor compete in a game of wheelchair football, using one of those little carts that amputees seemed to use in continental Europe between the wars (you sometimes see them in films by Luis Bunuel, for instance). I remember feeling in something of a quandary, at the time, as to whether I should expose him as able-bodied. But, vivid as this dream was, it can be explained rationally, in that I had recently watched wheelchair football (or rugby) on the television, and Taylor “warming up” by playing (non-wheelchair) football in the outfield. My subconscious had simply reassembled those elements, and added a dash of continental spice.

My recurrent dream falls into neither of those categories. What is striking about it, apart from the regularity of its occurrence, (at least once a year, as I have said, usually in January or February), is that it is always exactly the same in every particular, so that I can now relive it (or re-dream it) perfectly without even being asleep.

It always begins, on a Saturday afternoon, in the rain (not heavy rain, but steady drizzle), and I am standing outside the British Heart Foundation shop in Market Harborough (I accept this will mean little to you if you are not familiar with Market Harborough, but bear with me). I am feeling at a loose end, perhaps because the football season has ended. I then remember that the cricket season has started and it suddenly hits me that there might be a game on at the forgotten ground (I call it that because, in my dream, I appear to have forgotten its existence). I feel some sense of relief, but more of self-reproach (as well I might, given how often I seem to have forgotten it).

I then set off for the ground. One of the few verifiable aspects of this ground is its physical location, which is here :

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– a slightly sunken area of Welland Park which, in reality, contains a rose garden (there is no cricket pitch, and, as far as I know, never has been).

I approach the ground by a long passageway that leads between two tall hedges, (at this point followers of the good Dr. Freud may be adjusting their pince-nezs thoughtfully), and arrive at a narrow turnstile. I now remember that I have forgotten to renew my membership (more self-reproach) and will have to pay to get in. In the corner of the ground nearest the turnstile is a portakabin, which acts as a club shop and office. I think of renewing my membership there, but realise I don’t have enough money on me.

I am now standing on a terrace. This terrace is, in a way that would be impossible to construct physically, simultaneously an old-fashioned terrace and a roofed “scratching shed” of the type that you still find at the smaller football grounds. It is, though, as steeply raked as the seating in a Roman amphitheatre (the obvious trigger for this dream is that I had, that day, visited such a one in Malaga).

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The pitch itself is oblong, like a football pitch, (although they are clearly playing cricket on it), only sunk into the ground like an empty swimming pool. On the far right hand side there is a pavilion of sorts : on the other sides there are grassy banks, ringed with tall hedges. It continues to rain, and the light is poor, but the game continues. Everything is very indistinct, and I can remember nothing of the match. And that is it.

The ground certainly has elements in common with various grounds that I have visited. The long passageway has something in common with Rothwell Corinthians FC, and, perhaps, Tunbridge Wells. The portakabin is very like ones I have seen at Stamford and Belper. I have spent many an afternoon in many a scratching shed. There are still banked terraces at Scarborough (wood) and the smaller of the two grounds at Wardown Park in Luton (stone).

The curious thing, though, is that the dream-ground predates my visits to most of these, resulting in a faint, untraceable sense of deja vu, a sense of having been there before, when I do visit.

This dream, especially its persistence, frustrates me by its sheer banality. It is, at least, useful, in that it reminds me that the season is on its way, and that I need to remember to renew my membership, but I receive quite enough letters and e-mails reminding me to do that already. I would prefer it, on the whole, if the subconscious mind, which seems to offer others (or so I read) access to vast archetypal images and lurid psycho-sexual dramatics, did not settle, so bathetically, in my case, for behaving like a pop-up reminder of a meeting on Microsoft Office.

Thank you for bearing with me. Perhaps the simple act of writing about the dream-ground will somehow exorcise it. If not, I should welcome any suggestions as to :

a) Which actually existing ground I might be dreaming about (preferably one that was demolished in about 1942 – a hint of the supernatural would, I feel, add a touch of distinction)

or

b) Any symbolic interpretation, the more fanciful the better, but preferably of an encouraging nature.

Anyone who prefers to suggest that my dream means that I spend far too much of my time watching sport of only moderate quality in the East Midlands needn’t bother. I knows it.

 * With the possible exception of Camilla Parker-Bowles (but it was very dark in that dream, and there was an awful lot going on).

A Musical XI

A propos of nothing in particular, I thought I’d resort to the traditional Winter pastime of assembling imaginary XIs. The aim here is to put together a side who could perform equally well as a large band (or small orchestra), or a cricket team.

To begin with, looking it at first from the musical perspective, three very competent musicians.

Ewart Astill (Leicestershire and England) : piano, backing vocals

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Alongside fellow all-rounder George Geary, Astill formed the backbone of Leicestershire’s side between the wars.  Although he never played a Test in England, or toured Australia, he was taken on several other England tours, to South Africa and the West Indies. His medium pace off-breaks and cutters, competent middle order batting, and uncomplaining nature made him a handy man to have around, but so, in the days when touring teams had to make their own entertainment, did his ability as a professional-quality pianist and singer, specialising in jazz and ragtime styles. He will also act as our band-leader.

Frank Parr (Lancashire) : trombone

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The only member of this side (to my knowledge) to have been both a professional musician and cricketer, Parr kept wicket for Lancashire between 1951 and 1954, was described by Herbert Strudwick as “the most promising ‘keeper I’ve seen in years”, and was tipped for an England place, but his career came to an abrupt end when he was dropped by the newly appointed professional Captain, Cyril Washbrook, who also wrote to Worcestershire, suggesting that they should not employ him either, on the grounds that he was “a grave social risk”. Parr said later said that his sacking was “the reason I took up serious drinking”.

Parr had been playing jazz trombone part-time alongside his cricket, and, after his sacking, joined the Mick Mulligan Band, which featured George Melly as lead vocalist.  Melly described him as “An extreme social risk, a complicated rebel whose world swarmed with demons and Jack O’Lanterns” and that he “concealed a formidable and well-read intelligence behind a stylised oafishness”.  Clearly, anyone whose behaviour struck Melly as excessive was unlikely to appeal to the disciplinarian Washbrook, but his dual talents mean selecting him is an “extreme risk” I am prepared to take, even if it means propping him up on stage to play.

Neville Knox (Surrey and England) : lead vocals

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Knox, who had opened the bowling for Dulwich College with P.G. Wodehouse, was a tearaway amateur fast bowler of the Edwardian era, described by Jack Hobbs as “the best of my time”. His star blazed briefly, but brightly, enjoying two very good seasons in 1905 and 1906, the high point of which was taking 12 wickets for Gentleman v Players at Lord’s in 1906 (this was the game in which one of the professionals, seeing the speed at which Knox and Brearley were bowling, allowed himself to be bowled and walked off, saying “I’m sorry, Sir, but I’ve got a wife and family to think about”).

Knox always bowled flat out, off a long and winding run, with an “unusual” action.  Most observers thought he would not be able to keep this up for long, and so it proved.  He developed severe problems with his shins, which left him permanently lame, and played only irregularly after 1906.  After this he devoted himself to his career as a professional “concert singer”.  I have not been able to discover exactly what it was that he sang, or whether he was any good, but I am prepared to take a gamble by choosing him as my lead vocalist.

Curtly Ambrose (Northamptonshire and West Indies) : bass guitar

Richie Richardson (West Indies) : rhythm guitar

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Ambrose (Richardson not pictured)

 

As cricketers, these two need no introduction : as musicians, they play together in the band “Spirited”, specialising in reggae and soca.  It is fair to describe their playing style as “minimalist”, but I hope they will provide a solid rhythmic bedrock for some of my more extravagant soloists to stretch out and wail.

Lionel Tennyson (Hampshire and England) : drums

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There is no getting away from it that who is to occupy the drummer’s seat is a bit of a conundrum.  I think I remember once seeing Vivian Richards playing the bongos, but I doubt if that is enough to propel a band of this size.  So, I shall have to gamble on offering the sticks to Lionel (later Lord) Tennyson, grandson of the Laureate, and sometime captain of Hampshire and England.

Tennyson undoubtedly fancied himself as a jazz drummer.  On a tour of New York, with Mayor Jimmy Walker, he visited Harlem and “insisted on studying the great jazz drummer Arthur “Monk” Hazel from close quarters”.  On the boat out to South Africa in 1924, he sat in on the ship’s band on the voyage out.  During the trip to the West Indies in 1925, he formed the touring party into a band (led by Ewart Astill), with himself on drums, which apparently went down well with those on board.

However, not everyone was as appreciative of his playing.  On the tour to South Africa, Charlie Parker (the spin bowler, not the saxophonist) grew so tired of Tennyson’s inability to “follow even the simplest tempo” that he joined with Tour Manager Archie MacLaren in throwing his drum kit overboard.  In Port of Spain, Tennyson’s band were booked as top of the bill in a variety theatre, but were, unfortunately, forced to beat a retreat under a hail of missiles before the end of their first number.

I will admit to some misgivings about his ability to “mesh” with his rhythm partner, Ambrose, but I feel that enthusiasm counts for a good deal, and that, if the worst came to the worst, we could always pass his playing off as “avant-garde”.

At this point, we have the makings of a decent side, and a decent band : two fast bowlers, a wicket-keeper, two middle-order batsmen and an all-rounder ; or, a singer, a rhythm section and two lead instrumentalists.  All we need to do now is to flesh out the bones a little.

Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (Australia) : vocals and bird impressions

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I feel we need a specialist spinner in the side.  Graeme Swann does sing, of course, but I have heard his singing.  George Macaulay  (the irascible Yorkshire wet wicket specialist of the 1920s) used to give recitals of songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, but I fear his habit of viciously abusing his team-mates for dropped catches might extend to dropped notes and missed cues, and the band is already something of a combustible mixture.

So, instead, I have opted for “Chuck” Fleetwood-Smith, the Australian slow left-armer of the inter-war years.  He was not a concert performer, but did a wide range of bird impressions : when coming in to bowl he would make “the loud cacking noise of a magpie or the whoop of the whipbird”, and once defused a tense situation at Northampton, following a disputed dismissal, by performing an impression of a kookaburra on heat, “complete with flapping wings and frenzied hops”.  When he was not impersonating birds, he would “stroll along the boundary singing “I’m in the Mood for Love” and other romantic numbers”.

Philip Sharpe (Yorkshire and England) :  vocals

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Perhaps my band is lacking a little solidity, but who better to add that quality than the late Phil Sharpe? In addition to his batting and impeccable slip-fielding, he was a keen amateur singer with the York Light Opera Society, specialising in songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, and I think he will harmonise nicely with Neville Knox.

Harold Gilligan (Sussex and England) : water whistle and tenor saxophone

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Gilligan on left, wearing trilby

The brother of A.E.R. Gilligan, Harold captained England on an early tour to New Zealand, but was a player of modest ability, whose major achievements were scoring 1,000 runs in a season at the lowest ever average of 17.70, and being Peter May’s Father-in-Law.

He did, however, join Tennyson in sitting in with the ship’s band on the tour to South Africa, and is described as being “superb on water whistle and tenor saxophone”. As the musical direction of the band is tending inexorably in the direction of jazz, I think he has to go in, and can share solo spots with Astill and Parr.

Walter Hammond (Gloucestershire and England) : flexatone

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A flexatone

An all-time great as a batsman, of course, a more than useful fast-medium bowler, and a star of Tennyson’s band on the trip to the West Indies, playing the flexatone, a device comprising two pieces of bent steel with two clappers.  It produces a sound that is a cross between a musical saw and a theremin, and will provide some pleasing tonal colouring.

Joe Root (Yorkshire and England) : ukulele

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OK, so his playing may be a little on the rudimentary side, but the lad can bat.

So, in batting order, that gives us :

Root

Sharpe

Richardson

Hammond

Tennyson

Astill (Capt.)

Gilligan

Parr (WK)

Ambrose

Knox

Fleetwood-Smith

I have made Astill the Captain.  Tennyson won’t like it, but he made a popular and successful professional Captain of Leicestershire in 1934, and it will reinforce his authority as band leader.

This looks like a pretty powerful team to me.  Knox and Ambrose will form a formidable new ball partnership, with plenty of support from Astill, Hammond and Fleetwood-Smith. Parr was a quality wicket-keeper, and Hammond and Sharpe an unbeatable slip cordon.  The top order batting is very strong.

Musically, although there is plenty of individual talent on show, I am a little concerned about their ability to “gel”.  A lot, I think, will depend on Ambrose and Richardson’s ability to adapt their style, and provide a solid foundation for what threatens to descend into a series of free-jazz improvisations on themes by Gilbert and Sullivan. But I am confident that no-one will be asking for their money back, and, if all else fails, there are always Fleetwood-Smith’s bird impressions.

 

The Colin Milburn I Remember

The older I grow, the harder I find it to write about anything but memory. I picture it as a cloudy golden fluid, in which once solid, living, things, rather than being preserved like flies in amber, dissolve and fragment.” – Nicholas Faxton.

So, time for some memory work. Who was the Milburn I remember? Memory speaks :

“He was the first player I remember well, the first to really capture my imagination. Although I lived in Lancashire as a child, my family spent most of the Summer holidays staying with my Grandparents in Northamptonshire, and we spent a lot of time at Wantage Road, watching the cricket. I can picture my Mother’s Father driving my Dad (who didn’t drive) and I to the ground, and I particularly remember my Dad being anxious that we should arrive in time for the start of play, in case Northamptonshire batted first. He didn’t want to miss Milburn bat, you see, who I had been told was capable of doing extraordinary things – he might hit boundaries – even a six! – in the first over, or score a Century before lunch, which was considered a great achievement in those days.

Sometimes, of course, we would be unlucky. Northants would bowl first, and I would have to be content with watching Milburn fielding at short leg (his rear view was a source of great amusement), or bowling his underestimated medium-pacers. The best you could hope for would be that he would field in the outfield and have to pursue a ball to the boundary, urged on by the crowd as it accelerated away from him. But if were lucky, Northants would bat, and Milburn would open.

Milburn’s opening partner was always Roger Prideaux. I can see them now, walking down the steps of the old pavilion, Prideaux immaculately turned out in his Cambridge Blue cap and knotted silk ‘kerchief, Milburn, bare-headed, his belly already straining to remove his shirt tails from his trousers. My strongest memory of him is of sitting in the old West Stand and readying ourselves to take evasive action as Milburn pulled ball after ball to the boundary, often low and hard and straight into the stand itself, crashing into the wall and rebounding down the tiers of seats, scattering the spectators and upsetting our thermos flasks. By this stage, he would be sweating profusely and his belly would have freed itself from his shirt and his shirt tails from his trousers.

Of course, we all thought he should have played for England more often than he did. Another clear memory is of the announcement of the touring side to Pakistan in the Winter of 1968/9. In those days the composition of the party was announced over the radio at the end of the 2 o’clock news on the Sunday of the last Test of the Summer. I can picture us sitting in the dining room of my Grandparents’ house, dinner cleared away (and, I suspect, my Mother and Grandmother already doing the washing up), with the old Roberts radio already tuned in. We listened as the names were announced, the Captain first, then in alphabetical order – J, K (Knott?), then straight on to P for … Prideaux! The surprise that Prideaux had been chosen, and Milburn left out (which we probably blamed on some kind of class prejudice) quite obscured the fact that D’Oliveira had not been selected either.

Then, of course, came his accident …”

But let us stop for a moment, and ask how much of this is true. That is, how much of it is an accurate account of what I can remember, as opposed to simply writing, and how much of what I think I can remember might be true?

To begin with, Milburn’s accident occurred in May 1969, when I was eight years old, and I can remember very little of my earliest childhood. It is true that, in the mid-1960s, we used to stay with my Grandparents during the Summer holidays (there are photographs and even cine-films as proof), but I don’t think it would have been for all, or even most, of them (that belongs to a slightly later period), and I’m not sure that we spent all that much time watching cricket together at Northampton (if anything, we would have watched the games at Kettering, which I don’t remember at all).

Even if we had spent the whole of July and August in Kettering between 1966 and 1968 (I don’t think I would be capable of remembering anything before that), we could, according to Cricket Archive, have watched 21 home games (4 of those at Wellingborough or Kettering) : Milburn played in 11 of them, making 4 fifties (3 in 1967, 1 in 1968), with a highest score of 58 (in fact, Prideaux seems to have been the more prolific of the two). Looking at the scorecards, I can’t say any of them rings a particular bell : if I had to pick one out that might have lodged in my mind, it is quite likely that we would have watched the match against Nottinghamshire on 31st July 1968 (to see Gary Sobers), in which Milburn made 49, batting at no. 3, but that is pure conjecture.

In fact most of what I remember, or what I have claimed to remember, is conjecture, embellishment, or outright invention. Milburn often did open with Prideaux, though not always. I cannot, though, picture them walking down the steps of the old pavilion (in fact, looking at photographs of the pavilion at that time, I had quite forgotten what it looked like). I do not remember Prideaux wearing his Cambridge cap or a ‘kerchief round his neck (it’s the kind of thing he ought to have done, but if he did, it is something I have imported into my memory from photographs or books). I must have seen Milburn field, but the humorous aspect of his rear view is probably something I remember from the work of Roy Ullyett, the old Daily Express cartoonist, rather than life.

The vignette of being driven to the ground, which I can picture with suspicious clarity in my mind’s eye, is probably true, if only because I don’t think I can have borrowed it from anywhere else, and seems characteristic of both generations of parents. As for my most vivid memory, of being bombarded in the West Stand, it is very likely that something of the sort happened : if Milburn had been batting at the Pavilion End, his trademark pull would, indeed, have landed in or over that Stand. The only problem with this is that the stand is still there, and I often still sit in it (remembering, as I think, Milburn), and some of the details (the ball rebounding off the back wall, the upset Thermos flask) may date from as recently as last Summer, and a more modern batsman entirely.

Most of the third vignette, which again I can visualise quite clearly, must be pure invention. Touring parties were indeed given out in this way, and it is more than likely that I would have heard one being announced in those circumstances, but whether it was this particular one I have no idea (and, having looked the tour party up, Murray and Pocock would have intervened between the absent Milburn and Prideaux). As for the old Roberts radio (which I think might actually have been a Bush) and my washing up Grandmother, these, like Prideaux’s cap, are the kinds of concrete detail that help to make an untruthful narrative, or a fiction, convincing.

But back to the accident, which I cannot remember, though it must have occurred when I was back at school in Blackpool, and its aftermath.

 

I can remember pictures of Milburn, sitting up in bed, with his eye bandaged (like Pudsey the Bear), “joking with the nurses” and, I think, drinking a glass of champagne (though I may be confusing these with similar pictures of George Best). At this point, I don’t think it occurred to me that he might not play again. My Grandparents used to send us a copy of a now defunct local newspaper called “The Leader”, so that we could keep in touch with events in Northamptonshire, and this carried regular bulletins on his progress, his good spirits, his plans to return to the nets, his optimism that he would be returning to cricket soon, perhaps next season, perhaps the one after, a process that must have continued for all of four years. In the meantime he had a strange afterlife, inhabiting a limbo in which he was never quite absent, though his physical return was always postponed.

The same “Leader” had published a centrefold of Milburn, which I had pinned up on my bedroom wall (and would have been the last thing I saw before I fell asleep at night). It showed an artist’s impression of him, playing a pull shot (in the direction, perhaps, of the old West Stand), his shirt unbuttoned and his shirt tails flapping, perhaps his trousers split (and, no doubt, when I close my eyes and picture myself back in that stand, that is the image I see).

I was, at that time, a devotee of pencil cricket, in which England sides of my own devising played out various shadow series (often against Rest of the World XIs, which were then fashionable). My selections were rooted in the real world, but soon diverged from it, as players who were favoured by the roll of the pencil, or (to be frank) whom I liked (such as, puzzlingly, Dudley Owen-Thomas of Surrey) prospered and others (such as Geoffrey Boycott) failed. In this shadow world (which, at times, seemed more real to me than the real one), Milburn retained his eye, and his England place, and he continued to bombard the old West Stand, as the pencil, repeatedly and mysteriously, awarded him six after six.

As the years passed (four of them, a long time at that age), and Milburn’s bodily return seemed to be indefinitely postponed, the visions faded. I grew tired of pencil cricket, and the ikon on my wall was replaced by a poster of the Carillon at Bruges, or possibly Alice Cooper. By the time he did return (playing 16 first-class games in 1973, and 12 in 1974), I had almost forgotten him. He was, as everyone said, a shadow of his former self, not the player he had been, not what he was. I must have seen him play then, and this shadow-self should be the Milburn I remember well, but I find I can remember nothing. The truth is, the Milburn I remember was always already a memory, a golden absence, beyond recall.

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A Midlands Romance

Belper Town FC v Loughborough Dynamo FC, 29th October 2016

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“The only thing romantic in the Midlands is the names of the professional football clubs – and football, generally speaking, is not a romantic game …

 

The towns are, perhaps, not meant for summer, summer’s delights and summer’s games, and only when the fogs come down and blur their grim, unlovely lines and the street-lamps mingle with lights from stalls and shops to deck them out in a boisterous blaze do they become warm and human. 

 

Football is their proper game, and, seen in the lights of the trams as they sway over lines glittering in the December rain, the stop-press columns of the evening papers with their long lists of scores and results take on a mystic significance …”

Meet me on the corner when the lights are coming on and I’ll be there – I promise I’ll be there …”

Quotations from Dudley Carew (“To The Wicket”) and Rod Clements (“Meet Me On The Corner”).

 

Pessoa and the Lambton Worms

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The Meaning of Sport / Simon Barnes : Short Books, 2006

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters : Travels Through England’s Football Provinces / Daniel Gray : Bloomsbury, 2013 

For the sake of argument, there are two types of argument about sport (as this piece is going to be structured around collapsible binary oppositions, I may as well start as I mean to go on). So, for the sake of argument, two. The first, which – however heated – has the potential to achieve some kind of resolution, is about matters of detail, or means, by those who assume a common goal. In the second kind, the disputants will always be at cross purposes, and the argument can never be resolved, because their motives for following the sport, and the goals they are hoping to achieve, are quite different and incompatible.

For example, if the point at issue is whether the number of First Class Counties should be reduced, to produce a higher quality of cricket and a more successful England side, two people who follow cricket for reasons of connoisseurship (an informed appreciation of high quality cricket), or national patriotism, will be arguing only as to whether that is an effective means to a commonly agreed end. They may reach agreement with each other, but will never agree with someone whose motives for watching cricket are primarily social (a chance to meet their friends, a sense of belonging), or local patriotism. Cricket is, perhaps, more prone to these intractable arguments than, say, football, because, as well as having a broader emotional range, its followers have a wider range of motives.

This thought occurred to me when the happy serendipity of the charity shop led me to read two books, both ostensibly about sport (they were shelved in the sports section). One was “The Meaning of Sport” by Simon Barnes, the other “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters” by Daniel Gray. Both are described on their cover as “joyful”, but neither author would, I think, be able to extract much joy from the other’s sporting life. I am not intending to review both books. I enjoyed, and would recommend both, but although the authors are of interest as individuals, I am more concerned with them here as types, as extreme cases of two attitudes to sport, or as polar opposites on a spectrum which I hereby, grandly, dub “the Barnes-Gray Scale”.

To begin with the similarities, both books are accounts of travelling to watch sport over a limited period of time. Barnes, in his then-role as Chief Sportswriter for “The Times”, begins his journey in Portugal in 2004 for the European (Football) Championships, and ends in Summer 2006, in Germany to watch the (Football) World Cup. In between, he takes in Wimbledon, the Olympic Games in Athens, the US Open, the Ryder Cup, the European Cup Final in Istanbul, the 2005 Ashes series, the Winter Olympics (from his home in Suffolk), the Test series in India, and another European Cup Final in Paris. In between, he zooms back and forth, in space and time, from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Japan ; he is menaced by a jaguar, kisses Daryl Hannah, falls off his horse and has frequent misadventures with internet connections.

Gray’s book covers roughly (the chronology is a little vague) the calendar year 2011. He aims, as he turns thirty, to visit the football grounds of those teams who finished first, second and last in the four divisions in the year of his birth, meaning that he ends up in Middlesborough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Hinckley, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay (sharp-eyed readers may be able to spot a couple of anomalies in that list). His modus operandi (although he doesn’t say so, I think he must have been working from Monday to Friday) is to arrive by public transport on the morning of the match, mooch around town, give us a potted history of the town and the club, have a drink, watch the match, go out on the town (on his own), stay in a cheap hotel, mooch around a bit more and head back to Scotland (where he lives). He, too, encounters difficulties along the way : he is annoyed by some mildly racist old ladies and almost has his notebook confiscated by stewards in Luton, and is accused of “looking like Harry Potter” and being “a paedo” in Middlesborough ; he takes in various pubs and social clubs, a Nando’s, a McDonald’s and the Luton Conservative Club.

Barnes writes like a professional (he describes having to write 600 words in half an hour, and how the ability to do so plausibly is the real mark of a journalist). His book consists of 158 short pieces, each about the length of a newspaper column, and containing at its heart one thought, usually epigrammatically expressed. Some of these epigrams glisten briefly, then burst like soap bubbles ; sometimes the pieces are like an elegant display of Barcelona-style tiki-taka that results in nothing, but usually the thought, once unwrapped from its cocoon of words, is worth having (I realised, on re-reading the book, that I have internalised several of them to the extent that I had forgotten their origin).

Gray (and I mean this as a compliment) writes like a blogger : he rambles, meanders and takes detours as his whimsy takes him ; if he comes across something that takes his fancy, then in it goes into his narrative – talking CCTV cameras in Middlesborough, Benedictine drinkers at Turf Moor, the shops next door to the childhood home of Jarvis Cocker. His writing resembles that of Stuart Maconie (though without the mania for puns) and Harry Pearson (and, if you don’t like either of those, you are unlikely to admire Gray), tinged with a zany, Reeves and Mortimer-style kitchen sink surrealism. Occasionally, an overambitious figure of speech is fired high over the bar into Row Z from thirty yards out (lambs glimpsed from a train are “like white mice climbing ladles in a cutlery drawer”) but, mostly, his style is vivid and droll. A typical passage (and, if you can’t see what this has to do with sport, it might suggest you are a Barnes) might include :

Lambton Worms of two-up two-downs once more take me to a home ground … Ticket office girls, with whom I spend more time on Saturdays than my wife, ignore me at first. They have an important matter at hand : one has pinched a bacon Frazzle from the other. ‘That’s my dinner, ger off.’ … At half-time, one, two, three then four people all sidle along to the gangway and slip on a battered haddock, discarded at the game’s start as its eater cheered Crewe’s goal.

The two writers set out their stall in their titles. “Hatters, Knitters and Railwaymen” (the nicknames of Luton Town, Hinckley Athletic and Swindon Town respectively) is concrete, particular and conveys, concisely, that Gray is interested in the way that football clubs preserve the sense of identity that was once generated by local industries. “The Meaning of Sport” is grandly ambitious, abstract, and, apparently, so pretentious that it could, by any other writer, only be intended at least semi-ironically.

Barnes is often accused of pretension ; unfairly, I think, in that he does not pretend to a level of intelligence, or a breadth of cultural reference, that he does not possess. What makes him unusual is that he sees no incongruity in writing about sport in the same way that he approaches high culture, and, therefore, has no sense of the potential for bathetic comedy in doing so (he seems genuinely puzzled and pained by his frequent appearances in Pseuds’ Corner, for instance). He is aware that his habit of selecting a national classic to accompany a tournament, like a gourmet selecting a fine wine to accompany a meal (he takes Pessoa to Portugal, Seferis to Greece, Sei Shonagan to Japan) will strike some as absurd, but he cannot understand why.

Most writers about sport, however high-browed, have, lurking somewhere at the back of their minds, a minatory chorus of stick-giving mates (from the terraces, or the Rugby Club bar), who must be placated with, at least, one layer of self-deflating irony. Barnes, on the other hand, seems to worry that his literary friends will think he is wasting his time writing about sport at all, that he is not being pretentious enough. This is partly, I think, because, unlike Gray, whose first experience of sport was the entirely typical one of being taken to the football (in his case, at Ayresome Park) by his Dad, Barnes seems to have discovered sport by himself, and comparatively late in life. He is not, even subconsciously, worried about what his mates at the football will think, because he never had any. And this, I think, takes us back from the particular to the typical, and my putative Barnes-Gray Scale.

Barnes, as I have suggested, is interested in sport in the abstract, and in, as well as professionally obliged to write about, all sports (if I wanted to risk a trip to Pseuds’ Corner myself, I might suggest he sees particular sports as the phenomenal manifestation of the noumenal essence of sport itself). This does not mean that he likes them all equally (he thinks golf is “silly” and hates boxing). At one point he lists the fifty greatest sporting events of his life : eight are from football, six athletics, five cricket, four from rugby, horseracing and tennis ; there are also entries from basketball, American football, equestrianism, sailing and boxing. What he dislikes is what he terms the “monoculture” of English sport, the “notion that only football matters”. It is possible that Gray is interested in sports other than football, but there is only a passing mention of them in his book ; I am sure he does not believe, as Barnes alleges, that “to admit to a liking for any sport other than football is a confession that you are homosexual”, but I doubt he thinks of any as more than a temporary diversion from the main event.

Other sports do intrude rudely, once, into Gray’s monocultural world in the shape of the 2012 London Olympics. For Barnes, the Olympics represent the apex of sport, the essence of sport, because it is, variously, “a feast of really big fuckers” (an allusion to Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney), because it attracts “10,000 journalists … 10,000 artists, all trying to grapple with beauty and immensity”, because it is “the greatest of all sporting events” and so on (his veneration for the Olympics is one of the leitmotifs that weave in and out of his narrative).

For Gray, “watching handball at midnight suddenly seemed like a rational activity. In itself, that was fine. Delightful, in fact. Then they went for our sport.” He quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing of football as a sport “which sometimes looks like a game owned by crooks and despots and played by racists and rapists” and responds that Wheatcroft is “writing of top-end Premier League, of multi-millionaire players. That is not my game … It is not the football that unites post-industrial towns when so much else is lost to them … Neither is it the football that acts as a social lubricant when I am at a wedding or in the workplace … Rowing and equestrian, incidentally, are none of these things. Yes, I can do class prejudice too.” (Given that “rowing and equestrian” are two of Barnes’ favourites, this might be a rare example of their two worlds colliding.)

The Olympics are only the biggest of the “really big fuckers” that Barnes writes about : in the space of two years he does not seem to have watched any sport below the level of one of the bigger Premier League games. Gray, on the other hand, spurns the one opportunity he has to watch a top-level game : when his schedule should have taken him to Liverpool, he decides, instead, to visit (of all places) Newquay (“ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a happy, wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fulled orgy”). Whereas Barnes is, in the most benign sense of that vexed term, an elitist, Gray is not only indifferent to elite sport, but actively hostile to it.

It is possible that Barnes was only contractually obliged to write about the great events and spent his days off watching Ryman League football, but I doubt whether he would see the point, or be able to find any meaning in it. For him (and this is another leitmotif) sport is about greatness, or, as he puts it (in a passage that teeters on the brink of self-parody):

It [a tennis match between Sampras and Agassi] was the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between very, very good – and great. And, as I seek constantly a good tale to tell, so I seek – almost for private reasons, for personal rather than public gratification – greatness, I seek an understanding of greatness. I seek, perhaps, the highest thing of all, to write greatness : and write it true. But, above all, I seek to be where greatness is.”

or, again :

Greatness is a great word in sport, a great concept. In a sense, sport is all about greatness : the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness. Greatness is elusive of definition …”

and so on. Whatever Gray is looking for when he travels to Burnley or Crewe, it cannot be greatness ; in fact, he rarely makes any comment on, or even seem to notice, the quality of the game he has come to see.

For Barnes, greatness is an individual quality. When he writes about team games, he boils them down, reduces them to the stories of individuals : “at the heart of the story of the Ashes was the story of Andrew Flintoff : the Man Who Changed” ; Liverpool won the European Cup Final because “One man refused to accept the things that were happening before him. Steven Gerrard didn’t like reality … so he changed it.” When he tries to sum up what sport is all about, discover its quintessence, he gives it the name of an individual (the rower, Steve Redgrave).

Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is a quality. Napoleon would ask of his generals “has he luck?”. I ask of athletes “Has he Redgrave?”.”

Gray has so little interest in individuals that he does not once name the players in the matches he sees (which he could have discovered by buying a programme). I can work out that Sheffield United’s “beanstalk forward” who will “end the season in prison for rape” must be Ched Evans, and can have a stab at one or two others, but otherwise they remain anonymous. It is not, though, that he is interested in the team (as in team-work, team-spirit or tactics) ; he is interested in the club. The team is a particular collection of individuals at a given moment in time ; the club is a collective entity that transcends time (always changing, always mysteriously the same) and (as any football fan will tell you) it is the fans that make the club. A team is a managerial entity ; a club a social one.

Barnes repeatedly, and deliberately, distances himself from any notion of belonging. The first section finds him in a cafe in Portugal, reading Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, in the company of “men with very little hair and very considerable bellies. This evening England play Croatia : if they (should I say we? Definitely not) win or draw …”. At Wimbledon, at the height of Henmania, he concedes that “I am no more like these tennis followers than I am like the football people I scowled at in Lisbon”. He explains his dislike of golf by his “media-pinko” parents’ “dislike of suburban values … and clubbability : no. Not my way”. “I wasn’t brought up with the nation of supporting a football club … Perhaps fanship is like acquiring language : it has to be done at a certain, and very young age, or it simply doesn’t happen” ; “Do I sound like an Arsenal supporter here? I am not. I am a supporter, I suppose, not of Juventus, but of juventus …” and, a phrase he repeatedly employs,My patriotism for the nation of excellence …”.

If Barnes is, in his own eyes, the cat who walks alone (all teams are alike to him), for Gray the search for a sense of belonging is the whole point of football, the whole meaning of sport. In his conclusion, he writes :

Away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it [football] remains a social movement I am honoured to be part of. Down in the provinces, it is affordable and accessible. Contrary to my fears, young people are still catching the bug. No computer game can beat the thrill of … being an active part in a bustling community of interest … in an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.

What is striking is how mutually exclusive their two worlds seem. Barnes spends 365 pages looking for the meaning of sport, and never thinks of looking where Gray finds it, either physically (in Crewe) or mentally. Sport, in all its 158 Barnesian aspects, scarcely seems to exist for Gray, except as a pretext for something else. Although Barnes nods to the contemporary pieties about race and gender, he is essentially apolitical : Gray is political in the both the obvious sense (he is an ex-member of the SWP, he is angry about Hillsborough and Thatcher, he writes about the Chartists and the post-war Luton riots) and the more radical sense that he discovers the meaning of football in the civic, the social, a matter of the polity.

You might, I suppose, extrapolate from this a divided nation, and there is certainly an aspect to their differences which is to do with regionality and class. Barnes (a middle class product of the South London suburbs) is an authentic example of a minority who are genuinely globalised, individualistic, floating free from inherited attachments and historic resentments : Gray, self-consciously working class and Northern (his family “miners turned bus drivers” from Teeside via Yorkshire), sees football as a way to cling to them.

But that, I suspect, is a rather weak correlation (there must be many working-class Barnses and middle-class Grays), and most of us are neither purely Barnes nor Gray, but somewhere on a scale between the two. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would place myself somewhere nearer Gray’s end (I am mostly indifferent to sports other than cricket, football and rugby, often irritated by the Olympics, not overly preoccupied by greatness (which is just as well, given the teams I support), more attached to clubs than individuals, and am less interested in sport for sport’s sake than as a pretext for other things (though those other things are not quite the same as Gray’s). I do, though, exhibit more of (to use his formulation) the quality of Barnes when it comes to cricket, the sport I know and care about the most.

If you have a moment, you might find it amusing to try to place yourself somewhere along my scale.

Unleash the Cricket

Members’ Forum, Grace Road, 13th October 2016

At any given time, somewhere in this country, in a conference centre, lecture hall or meeting room, a man (or woman, but in the present case a man) will be standing in front of a screen, about to deliver a presentation. He may or may not believe what he is about to say, but he knows that his audience will be, at best, suspicious, at worst hostile. His task is to persuade them to accept some proposal for change. He may believe that this change will genuinely be in the best interests of his audience, or he might know full well that it is not. He may know that he has to persuade them for the change to occur, or (more likely) that it is going to happen anyway. There may be some scope to modify the proposal, or the “consultation process” might be a complete sham.

The presentation will contain most of the following (in bullet point-style, to adopt the conventions of the genre):

  • An attempt to establish that the speaker (on behalf of the management) understands the “concerns” of the audience, that their interests are the same, that they are all on the same side, really.
  • Some threats (of the awful consequences if the proposal is not adopted).
  • The phrase “The status quo is not an option”.
  • A lot of statistics, which the audience are in no position to query, however untrue they may appear to their own experience and intuition.
  • These statistics presented as the outcome of “research”, without much explanation of the source or methodology, or opportunity to query either. The speaker to announce the results of this “research” as if he were a high priest reporting back from a session with the Delphic Oracle.
  • Reassurance that the bleak future implied by the research need not come to pass (the audience does not need to “reach for the razorblades” or “throw itself out of the window”), if only the proposal is adopted.
  • The proposal, outlined in easy-reading infographics, decorated with pictures of vibrant and diverse young people, these representing The Future.
  • Questions (to be deflected or embraced, depending on how awkward or supportive they happen to be).

Anyone who has experience of these occasions, from either side of the divide, might be forgiven for approaching another with a certain weariness, which may explain why so few turned up to last Thursday’s Members’ Forum at Grace Road (it stuck fairly faithfully to the template above). I counted roughly 35 (out of a total membership of, I would guess, 5-700), of whom I recognised about half as regular attenders at Championship matches. Other explanations for the low turnout might be that it had only been extensively publicised on the internet (which, in many cases, our members do not have, or know how to use), and that the timing and venue (Grace Road at 6.15 on a dull October evening) will have discouraged both older members who prefer not to drive into Leicester at night, and younger ones who may not have time to get there after work (or to spare on a school night). Anyone who relies on buses (as many do) would be completely stymied, as they would be unlikely to get home again.

The event had been advertised as a chance to question Colin Graves, Waseem Khan and others. In the event, Waseem (for whom I have a lot of respect, but who is unlikely to do anything to queer his pitch with the ECB), occupied a supportive-but-not-wanting-to-get-too-involved position in the front row and said nothing. Graves spoke about 15 words (of which four were “workstreams”, “stakeholders”, “going” and “forward”), then sat and observed, looking both avuncular and vaguely sinister, as though he were simultaneously sucking on a Werther’s Original and stroking a white Persian cat. I thought I caught him looking askance at my scribbling in a notebook, but perhaps it is just that his eyes follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa. The talking and pointing was done by Gordon Hollins (the Chief Operating Officer) and Mike Fordham (who has been involved with marketing both the IPL and the BB). Both appeared personable and plausible, but then, if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.

I won’t spend too much time outlining the ECB’s case. Anyone who is at all interested in this subject will already be aware of the main points of their research from newspaper reports, and if you require more detail try looking at the ECB’s website under “Cricket Unleashed” (it even has a Powerpoint template, if you would like to make a presentation to yourself). But the gist of it is as follows:

  • All of English cricket (county, club, women’s – the lot) depends on financial support from the ECB.
  • 90% of the ECB’s revenue derives from bilateral international series (mostly from broadcasting rights). It is assumed that this will decline, leaving English cricket in a precarious position.
  • The only viable alternative revenue stream (see how I’m picking up the lingo) will come from T20 cricket.
  • Participation is in decline (apparently half of club cricketers are thinking of giving up next season – probably more if they’ve just made another duck or put their back out again).
  • The majority of those attending all forms of cricket (including T20) are male, over 45 and in social classes ABC1. When asked to choose a word to describe cricket, most 5-15 year-olds chose “boring” (their second choice was “ambivalent”, which suggests that it wasn’t a very long list).

The solution?

  • Create a new T20 tournament that will appeal to that proportion of the supposed “9.4 million” who have some interest in cricket, but do not currently attend matches.
  • This audience will be younger and more “diverse”. The ECB will be able to attract sponsorship and advertising from companies (such as soft drinks manufacturers) who aim their products at a younger audience, rather than the booze and financial services industries, which only appeal to us oldies.
  • This new competition will be “a new event and a new narrative”, a “TV orientated product” which will be marketed through non-traditional media.
  • It will be aimed at a family audience, in particular “Mums, who hold the purse strings”, looking for somewhere to take the children in the Summer holidays.
  • The marketors (yes, that is a word – they even have their own Worshipful Company) will seek to learn from the WWE and other “entertainment products”.
  • The new tournament will rejuvenate the game and protect the revenue stream that irrigates the rest of English cricket and allows it to flower.

So far, so good (or not, but plausible, at any rate). But what will the new tournament look like in practice?

  • The likely start date is 2020 (two or three years later than originally proposed). “20/20 in 2020” is, as Mike Fordham suggested, “a marketor’s dream” (and he seems to place an inordinate trust in their powers of divination).
  • The new teams will not be “franchises”, or even “city-based” (any mention of these terms from the floor prompted an immediate correction), they will be regional teams, which will attract regional support and offer the players an intermediate stage between county and international cricket.
  • The TV deal for the new competition is likely to contain some FTA broadcasts.
  • The new teams will play most of their games at a Test match ground, but may also play some at the grounds of the other counties in the region (e.g. Grace Road).
  • It will be played in a single block in August.
  • The counties will each receive £1.3 million in revenue (more for those hosting matches).

So (I think this is what interested those in the audience most), what will the new season look like? Something like this:

  • April (& May?) : the 50 over cup (a revival of the unlamented, frozen, days when the season began with the qualifying rounds of the B&H).
  • June-July : a slightly reduced T20 blast, played mostly on Friday evenings (to keep the booze’n’balti brigade happy).
  • August : the new Sunny D Supercharge plus … apparently, some kind of limited overs tournament that will include those county players unwanted by the regional sides, but also the minor counties.
  • The County Championship will, I think, be fitted into the gaps from April to July, cease in August and resume in September.
  • There will be fewer Test matches.

And so (again), what did I think? Quite a few things, as you can imagine, but thought that, for once, I would try to report the facts without too much opinionating. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a few …

  • Much depends on how far you are prepared to trust the ECB, and take what they are saying at face value. I don’t belong to the faction that sees them as evil personified (I didn’t notice any half-gnawed baby’s bones hidden under Colin Graves’ chair), and I don’t doubt that most of their officers and employees have what they conceive to be the best interests of English cricket at heart. On the other hand, if they thought the greater good of English cricket (and their careers) justified the extinction of one or two counties, or their relegation to the minor counties, I doubt they would hesitate to do so. (My objection to the ECB has never been as much to its personnel or actions as to its existence in its current over-mighty form : it was brought into being by the Counties, and, like Dr. Frankenstein, they may be starting to have second thoughts about their creation.)
  • I certainly shalln’t be watching the new T20 competition, but then, if I were planning to, the marketors would have failed : I am precisely the sort of undesirable they wish to repel. Who will is another matter, and a crucial one, given that the whole tottering edifice of English cricket appears to depend on its success. I would guess the regional teams might appeal in some regions (for instance Yorkshire), but less so in the East Midlands – most Leicester and Derby fans would only visit Trent Bridge to burn the place down (for football-related reasons). So, the future of English cricket does seem to depend rather a lot on uncovering enough of those purse-string controlling Mums.
  • I have long suspected that, if I am still watching Leicestershire and Northants in 20 years time, it will be at some level between the current Minor Counties and Division 2 of the Championship, quite possibly on a semi-professional basis and at outgrounds (and, as I suggested only last month when I visited Belper Meadows, on a purely selfish level, that would suit me well enough). The messages here were mixed : Hollins went out of his way to stress that the ECB represented all 39 counties, on the other hand that “parity of first class status is critical” and there would be no minor first-class counties. But if all goes to plan, and I find myself in August 2020 watching a Leicestershire XI playing Bedfordshire at Wardown Park, that will feel very much like the future to me.

Any questions?

I was too slow-witted to think of it at the time, but, if I had asked a question, it would have been this:

“You have referred several times to the WWE as a potential role model for your new competition, in particular for the way in which it has been successfully marketed to children. As you have admitted, the WWE is not a sport, but an “entertainment product” ; in the USA it is legally classified as “sports entertainment”, the distinction being that in “sports entertainment” the outcome of the bouts, and indeed, their entire narrative, may proceed according to a pre-determined script. Or, to put it more bluntly, the matches are all fixed. As it is largely this – the guarantee of spectacular action and an interesting narrative, however artificial – that makes it easy to market to children, is that an aspect of the WWE that you will be seeking to emulate?

And, as a supplementary question, you have made it clear that you are hoping to appeal to an audience who know very little about cricket. That being so, how can they be expected to know whether what they are watching is fixed? Would you expect them to care? Would you care?”

Answers, please, on a Powerpoint slide …

Autochthony, or A Few Months in the Country

“England was first and foremost a place – though a place consecrated by custom.  There thus grew on English soil a patriotism not unlike that from which the word ‘patriotism’ derives – the patriotism of the Romans, in which the homeland, rather than the race, was the focus of loyalty.”

“Cricket’s pre-industrial origins have thus stamped the game with a unique interplay between the collective and the individual, derived from its special alchemy of space and time … Because it is played out over a longer period of time than other sports, cricket is more susceptible to the vagaries of weather.  English cricket skills were developed to cope with these vagaries; the aim was not so much to master the environment as to exploit it … Its grounds remain astonishingly diverse in size, shape, exposure to the elements, quality of pitch and outfield. This diversity does not reflect mere foot dragging by old-fashioned cricket authorities.  It is the product of cricket’s autochthony,  one of the game’s inner secrets.

The word comes from the Greek, autochthon, of the land itself.”

“… and that is what I mean when I describe England as an enchanted landscape … To describe the attitude of the English to their landscape as Arcadian is to miss the real significance of what they did.  They remade the landscape as the outward sign of their inner unity, as a place that was a fitting home for their collective act of dwelling.  And all that they most loved in their society … they unconsciously imprinted on the face of England, to produce that inimitable patchwork which was one of the few things, besides the clouds and the climate, that their painters knew how to furnish with a soul.”

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Photographs taken at various cricket grounds in the East Midlands, between April and September 2016.

Quotations taken from “Anyone But England” by Mike Marqusee and “England : an Elegy” by Roger Scruton.