More than one way to “Be a Brit”*

As anyone who collects cricket books will know, the end of World War 2 brought a damburst of publications, as paper rationing ended and a full programme of cricket recommenced.  One of these, which I happened to pick up earlier this year, was Denzil Batchelor’s “The Game Goes On“, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1947.  We have met Batchelor before in the pages, attesting to C. B. Fry’s heroic levels of alcohol consumption during Tests and provoking Dudley Carew’s ire by reheating that old chestnut, the three division County Championship.

The first piece in the book is entitled ‘Why?’ (“watch cricket”, presumably – a question I often ask myself).  His answer begins

“To me the game I love best is something much more than a contest between athletes; something beyond even a physical fine art, a homespun latter-day equivalent of the Greek dance of the Golden Age.  When I watch it for an hour, or a day, or a season, I am catching a glimpse, a halcyon flash, of a great pageant which stretches far back into our history.  It is as exciting as if I were again watching, as an infant in a Reigate garden, the annual procession winding over the chalky downs, linking an Edwardian evening with a pilgrimage of the remote past, wending its way to bell-loud Canterbury in an age when the grey cathedral front was painted brilliant as jewels.”

Canterbury

and concludes

“The figures change, but the game endures, green, fresh and reviving as Spring herself.  They will be playing it long after the nightmares that overshadow us now have dissolved like mists in the sunlight of a new morning.  They will be playing it calmly and happily as if there had never been any nightmares, any wars, or any passage of time.  As if there had never been anything but this grand and gracious game against the changeless background of the green fields with the duck pond beyond, and time stopped still for ever while the game goes on.

Canterbury

So the pageant passes, and does not pass. So the game continues until there is no twilight and no umpire to spoil all by drawing stumps at the last.  And may I be there to watch – on one side of the fence or the other.”

Batchelor was not alone in turning his thoughts towards pilgrimages and a sense of the ever-presence of the dead during wartime.  On a higher (perhaps the highest) level, Eliot’s thoughts turned, or returned to  Little Gidding,  and then there was a film that it’s likely Batchelor would have seen and which I thought of immediately when reading his first paragraph, Powell and Pressburger’s ““A Canterbury Tale”, in particular, this passage:

“There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors.  Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today.

And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you’re seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you’re so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried.

And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.”**

I’ve made regular pilgrimages (of a sort) to Canterbury myself recently and, though I can’t say I’ve had any mystical experiences of any lucidity, it is hard not to be aware that you are walking in the footsteps of the dead, if only because you are deliberately  reminded of it at every turn.  In addition to the (mostly) genuinely mediaeval

Canterbury

there are conscious recreations of the Middle Ages

Canterbury

and those who unconsciously bring the distant past to life – the beggars under the City gates asking for alms, innkeepers and the pedlars of souvenirs and all-purpose signifiers of Britishness (the Beatles, Beefeaters and Mr. Bean)

Then there are the pilgrims themselves, or, as we would now call them, tourists.  They may have as much, or as little, faith as their mediaeval predecessors, but they mostly find themselves making their way to the Cathedral gates, by the path they would have taken

Canterbury

and, having paid the entrance fee, eventually, to the shrine of St. Thomas himself.  Originally the shrine would have looked something like this (partly genuine, part reconstituted) shrine to St. Alban in the Cathedral that bears his name

but, since the original was destroyed during the Reformation and any remains of St. Thomas disposed of, it has been replaced, on the rather Islamic principle that the ineffable can only be represented by the abstract, by a single light (rather outshone, when I last visited, by its neighbouring crypto-pagan rival, a Christmas tree).

Canterbury

canterbury

Whatever these modern-day pilgrims think of the shrine, whether they see anything, everything or nothing in it, they might pause to reflect that without it they would not be there ; there would be no pretext for their visit, their good meal last night or the Beatles memorabilia, Archbishop Duck or tea towels they’re planning to take home to their friends and families.

But to return to my original point (or Batchelor’s) – that one reason for watching cricket is to feel close to our ancestors, is that not – you might ask – rather exclusive?  What if my ancestors were not from England and didn’t play cricket?  What if they were from Oslo, Dahomey or Darkest Peru?

Of all Powell and Pressburger’s films “A Canterbury Tale” was the most personal one for Emeric Pressburger (and the one for which Powell held him responsible when it met with a mixed reception) and he was almost certainly the author of the passage quoted above.  Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew whose ancestors are unlikely to have made pilgrimages to Canterbury (or played cricket, for that matter), but he seems to have been able, imaginatively, to connect to our ancestors in a way that too many of us have lost the ability, or disdain, to do. There is more than one way to get close to our ancestors, and more than one way, perhaps, to be English.

There is more than one way, too, of course, to pay homage to St. Thomas and here, if you don’t fancy a trip to Canterbury, is one I intend to pursue when I’ve finished writing this:

PTDC1987

Anyway, I wish you all a Happy New Year – and may your God go with you!

* I have adapted the title of this piece from the (rather inapt) one that’s been given to a collection of books written by Pressburger’s fellow Hungarian and friend George Mikes that I was given for Christmas. 

** I have borrowed this transcription from this post  by my near neighbour and fellow blogger Jonathan Calder of Liberal England, so thanks, and a particularly Happy New Year to him. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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