A Waft of Pre-War Cigarette Smoke (Elegy no. 1)

One Long and Beautiful Summer : a Short Elegy for Red-ball Cricket / by Duncan Hamilton (riverrun, 2020).

A Last English Summer / by Duncan Hamilton (Quercus, 2010)

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet” (Edward Thomas, quoted by Hamilton).

It is not difficult to confuse the meanings of the words ‘elegy’ and ‘eulogy’.  One dictionary defines an elegy as ‘a sad poem or song, especially remembering someone who has died or something in the past’, and a eulogy as ‘a speech, piece of writing, poem, etc. containing great praise, especially for someone who recently died’.  Either would be an apt description of Duncan Hamilton’s ‘One Long and Beautiful Summer’ : it certainly contains ‘great praise’ for red-ball cricket, but perhaps he opted for ‘elegy’ in his sub-title to emphasise his book’s sadly poetical tone.  In either case, it is a comfort that, although he may believe that red-ball cricket is ‘in the past’, he does not believe it to be necessarily dead.

It is also not difficult to confuse ‘One Long and Beautiful Summer’ with Hamilton’s earlier ‘A Last English Summer’, which was published in 2010.  Both recount a journey through an English cricket season (2009 in the case of ‘ALES’, 2019 in the case of ‘OLABS’), in the form of accounts of day-trips to a selection of grounds chosen to illustrate a particular point, or aspect of the game, and both share an elegiac tone prompted by an apprehension that the season as Hamilton has known and loved it is about to be diminished beyond recognition : in 2009, he perceived the threat to be from white-ball cricket in general (and T20 in particular) ; in 2019 from ‘The Hundred’ specifically.

Both display his considerable virtues : unusually for a contemporary sports-writer, he is not afraid of ‘fine writing’, and has a command of the full rhetorical register from deflationary humour to the highest-flown.  He can be unashamedly sentimental and nostalgic without being maudlin or fey.  Above all, he has a masterly gift for what I am always kvetching that the TMS commentators lack – verbal description.  He can make you see what he has seen, and sometimes brings back to you what you have seen.  James Taylor ‘dashes for a single at incredible speed, like a mouse scampering along a skirting board’ (a phenomenon I have often noted) ; Suleiman Benn adjusts his field ‘with short-armed waves, as though pushing cobwebs away from his face’ ; ‘the bowler examining the seam, as if the maker’s name might contain a misprint, is Graham Onions’ ; ‘Ponting arrives, swishing his bat either side of his body, as if he’s aggressively paddling a small boat to the crease’.  You might have been there.

One obvious difference is in the length of the two books.  After ‘OLABS’ had slipped down, barely touching the sides, I began to, as I thought, re-read ‘ALES’.  I found that, although parts of it seemed familiar, others did not, and I am not convinced that I ever read the whole of it in the first place.  I estimate that ‘ALES’ is in the region of 130,000 words (slightly fewer than ‘The Return of the King’), whereas ‘OLABS’ is less than half of that. 

Hamilton approached the earlier book almost as an anthropologist might, recording every detail of the customs of a tribe who were on the brink of extinction, so that their lives could be preserved for posterity (‘I set off to preserve what I believed would soon perish’).  The presiding spirit is J.B. Priestley and his ‘English Journey’ ; that of ‘OLABS’ is Edward Blunden and ‘Cricket Country’, which he describes as ‘profoundly discursive, as well as tenderly elegiac’.  In ‘ALES’, Hamilton largely sticks to his brief of recording the matches he has seen, complete with scorecards and a statistical appendix ; in ‘OLABS’ the games act as a prompt to free association.  A photograph of the World Cup final leads to a digression on the 2005 Ashes series, the loss of free-to-air television coverage, a reminiscence of playing cricket in the park as a child, his years as a village cricketer, G.M. Trevelyan, Michael Meyer, the financing of village cricket, Bill Bowes, Martin Crowe, his early Winter coaching at Grace Road, David Gower, and finally, by a long and winding route, an anecdote about Kane Williamson going unrecognised at a petrol station.

It is an irresistible mistake to begin to read books like this by consulting the index.  I know to my cost that it can be a perilous endeavour to write impressionistic accounts, based on brief visits to places that others call home (they will know it better than you, and can compensate for any perceived slight by pointing out some trivial error).  So, looking up Grace Road in the index of ‘ALES’, I was mildly miffed by his lack of enthusiasm for The Meet, where I have, quite unironically, spent some of the happiest hours of my life (‘a low, unattractive building with a curved roof, resembling a farm barn’) ; in retaliation, I was able to raise a derisive eyebrow at his assertion that ‘the seating is a jumble of colours, as if tins of paint were being bought piecemeal and when one colour ran out another simply replaced it : bright yellow, dull green and deep red’ (these are Leicestershire’s colours, though less of the ‘dull’, if you don’t mind).

I repeated my mistake with ‘OLABS’.  Hamilton had visited Grace Road for the late-season game against Northamptonshire, which I remember as a particular low point in a season which had not been short of them.  He still thought that The Meet resembled ‘a farm-yard barn’, though this time ‘in need of a splash of whitewash’ (ignoring the rather attractive eau-de-nil repainting of the roof instigated by Wasim Khan), and that ‘the sight of it almost brings back a waft of pre-war cigarette smoke’ (a compliment, in my book, though I should have preferred pipe smoke).

This time, I took umbrage at his description of the crowd : ‘Each wears a mid-length padded coat with lots of pockets [I do not, I should say, possess such a garment] or a thickish sweater and a hat or cap of some kind.  Each carries a rucksack or bag, no doubt containing one or more of the following : sandwiches in a plastic box, bottled water, a Thermos flask, a cricket reference book, a pair of binoculars, a newspaper and a miniature radio’.  What – I felt like saying – did he expect people to wear to a game of cricket on a chilly day in September? A swimming costume? Evening dress? And what should they take with them? A saxophone? A mangle?

I should have known better.  If I had started the book at the beginning, I should have found his description of what he takes to the cricket :  ‘I like packing for the match too : pen and notebook, a newspaper, flat cap, scarf, suntan lotion, radio, binoculars’.  He worries about the future of the crowd at Grace Road, not in a derogatory spirit, but because he is one of us.  Unusually for a professional cricket-writer, you feel he would, if he were not being paid to do it, pay to watch Championship cricket (some of the others who approach it in the same spirit, like Chris Waters and Brian Halford, also came through the dwindling local press).

In spite of some glaring dissimilarities (he has won the William Hill Book Award three times : I write a blog), Hamilton is so similar to myself in his habits, opinions, sympathies and antipathies that I felt, at times, that he is not only one of us, but another one of me.  There are some purely personal similarities (an instinctive, childhood-bred, attachment to the seaside ; a youthful speech impediment ; a savouring of the walk to the ground ; an unfashionable taste for Cardus ; seeking refuge from Winter depression by compiling a personal fixture list for the Summer), but most would gain the assent of any representative sample of the cap-wearing and Thermos-toting classes : T20 is all very well in its way, but the Championship is the thing ; with the exception of Trent Bridge, County cricket is better watched at a small ground (preferably an out ground) than a Test ground (where ‘you feel so distant and semi-detached from what is going on that you could be looking at it through the wrong end of an observatory telescope’) ; our type of cricket, our little Arcadia, is permanently under threat from the indifference and wilful malice of those who run the game.

One other thing that we have in common is our age : he is 61 (and would have been 60 in 2019) ; I am two years younger, which may be how I can understand why ‘One Long and Beautiful Summer’ is such a time-haunted book. In an afterword, he reflects that he feels as if ‘ALES’ were set only four or five years ago, rather than ten : ‘here is evidence that age accelerates Time, which rushes on in a great woosh, but does so slyly and subtly ; we barely feel the draught as it passes’ and ‘doesn’t it all seem so close and, paradoxically, so far away?’.

To me, 2009 now seems several lifetimes ago, but he is correct that, in cricket, it occupies a kind of limbo between past and present, too far away to feel contemporary, but too recent for nostalgia : most of the players have now slid into retirement, but too many are hanging on for it to feel comfortably historical.  There are a few passages that, with hindsight, make for sad reading : James Taylor, whom Hamilton watched twice, first for Leicestershire against West Indies and then for England Under-19s, was having his first great season, averaging 58.85, with three hundreds (including a double against Surrey at The Oval) and six fifties.  When he was out for only 21 against Bangladesh, Hamilton writes : ‘without him the match suddenly dulls : there’s a dead patch in mid-afternoon which no-one adequately fills’ (for Leicestershire supporters, that ‘dull patch’ has lasted most of the decade). 

An account of Phillip Hughes being hit on the head by a ball from Harmison makes queasy reading now : ‘Hughes is trapped, unable to get out of the way because of the tight limitation his own footwork places on his movement.  He reels backwards.  His spikes dig in and save him from falling.  He has no clue about where the ball has gone, or how he might have avoided it in the first place.  With wanton theatricality, Harmison ignores Hughes’s distress … turns his back and returns to his mark, like someone who’s shot a bird and expects the gamekeeper to fetch it for him’.  

Less dramatically, there is, with hindsight, a sense of mildly unfulfilled promise about many of those who were then at the start of their careers (but, perhaps, no more so than for most young men hitting thirty).  Unusually, I think, all of the England Under-19 XI went on to have a County career of sorts, and three (Taylor, Vince, and Borthwick) have played in internationals.  Five are still playing professionally : of the others, in addition to Taylor, Azeem Rafiq was, of course, released by Yorkshire, and (more surprisingly) not signed by another County ; Jaik Mickleburgh was released by Essex in 2016 after a middling career ; Tom Poynton was forced to retire after being injured in a car crash ; the one I had to look up, Hamza Riazuddin, who captained the side, played a few games for Hampshire, the last in 2013.  Of the ones still playing, Josh Cobb (who made a double century) and Nathan Buck were Leicestershire players at the time (as, of course, was Taylor) : for Leicestershire, the sense of unfulfilled promise is as much collective as individual.

The problem with having so much in common with an author, particularly if, like me, you happen to have an antithetical cast of mind (I tend to form opinions by disagreeing with the last person I spoke to), is that you end up by arguing with yourself, like an unhinged stranger at a bus stop.  After all, as Hamilton says in relation to Trevor Bayliss ‘you never learn anything by listening to someone who agrees with your opinions’

It is as well to admit that I sometimes suspect myself of taking a perverse enjoyment – a kind of désespoir agréable – in feeling that the kind of cricket I love is dying, and I suspect it in Hamilton too.  He is not only professedly romantic and sentimental in the contemporary sense, but close to a ‘man of sentiment’ in its original eighteenth century usage (the elegy was, of course, a favourite form in the age of sentiment).  He contemplates the decline of the County Championship with the same savouring of the finer feelings it evokes in his breast as the sentimentalists contemplated the ruins of mediaeval abbeys, or the Romantics the picturesque poverty of Venice. 

It is also as well to admit that I feel that the Coronavirus has rather called my bluff.  I have spent the last ten years of writing this blog, implicitly or explicitly, lamenting the prospect of a Summer without cricket at Grace Road, and I have now been confronted with reality of it, not, as I had anticipated, through the machinations of the ECB, but because of some obscure bat-related shenanigans in Wuhan province.  Hamilton writes of Blunden : ‘he is showing us how bereft we will be if, one summer morning, we find that that the game as we know it has gone’.  Now that precisely that has happened, I find that I am not quite as bereft as I might have expected, or, at least, that the specific sense of bereavement has been lost in a wider one. 

The publication schedule for ‘OLABS’ allowed Hamilton to acknowledge the virus in his afterword, which must, I think, have been written in April or May : he admits that he briefly considered asking his publishers to ‘spike’ the book, but relented, when he considered the ‘magnificent triviality of sport in life’s great scheme’, and how ‘when normalcy returns, and we’re out in the fresh air again, we’ll appreciate and cherish the small pleasures of everyday life even more than we did before’. 

Hamilton has kept the faith more than, I fear, I am capable of : the last words of the book are ‘I clung to those ten words of Cardus’s (‘there can be no summer in this land without cricket’), a comfort against what may or may not happen to the game in the very near future ; for they always remind me of three things. How blessed I am to have been born here.  How I never want to live anywhere else. How much I love cricket’.  Six months on, with that return to normality seeming as far away as ever, Hamilton’s books would, if cricket were never to return, serve beautifully as a reminder of what we have lost, and, if there is one contemporary writer who could restore my faith, it would be him.

* A rare factual error, although I don’t think Somerset were progressive enough in 2009 to employ ‘Avril Suppiah’ as an opening bat.

3 thoughts on “A Waft of Pre-War Cigarette Smoke (Elegy no. 1)

  1. Very enjoyable, Nick.

    For a range of reasons – many similar to yours – I’m also a fan of Hamilton’s writing (it would be hard not to be), although I’m yet to read OLABS.

    I too can appreciate the danger of ending up ‘arguing with yourself, like an unhinged stranger at a bus stop’, and I share with you the fact that I didn’t feel particularly bereft as a result of watching no live professional cricket in 2020, although I see much less than you anyway, as I still work. I have, though, recently found myself thinking about how emotional a trip to Taunton next season will be, assuming it’s possible.

    One slightly pedantic point: Luke Wells never played international cricket, although he looked a very likely lad when I saw him make a hundred against Somerset a few seasons ago. I noticed he was released by Sussex (which seems a club in a bit of a mess) recently, but I doubt if he’ll have any trouble finding a new county if he wants to. A bit of reading around revealed that he’s done great things in Melbourne in recent winters, so he clearly still has plenty to offer.

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  2. Thanks, Brian.

    You’re quite right about Wells, of course (I think I was confusing him with Luke Wright, which I put down to creeping old age).

    I’m trying not to look forward to the new season too much, because I have no real confidence that it will see a return to normality. I hope it will be an emotional experience if I’m ever readmitted to Grace Road – it will surely be a strange one. I sometimes think that it is easier to preserve a romantic view of cricket if you don’t watch too much of it!

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