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.”


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.


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


there are conscious recreations of the Middle Ages


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


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).



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:


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. 








Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom : Benign Neglect

l’m conscious of having neglected this blog for too long. The Toad Work has pretty much had me in a half-nelson and though I’ve had the time to watch cricket I haven’t had the time (or mental space) to write about it. So although I have witnessed some momentous events (for once) I shall have to recollect them in tranquillity, rather than report in the heat of the moment.

On my return I half expected to find the blog overgrown with weeds or, to put it another way, a meadow in full bloom with wild flowers.  It can be hard to tell the two apart and simple neglect may be as effective a means of husbandry as deliberate tending.  This thought occurred on my way to Trent Bridge at the beginning of the month when I saw what, for me, were the first poppies of the Summer growing on this small patch of grass between the railway station and the path I take to the cricket ground through a housing estate known as The Meadows.  I imagine it hadn’t been mown because of cuts to council funding.Meadows 1Meadows 2 “The Meadows” was, I believe, the name for a much larger area of watermeadow on the banks of the Trent, taking in Meadow Lane (the home of Notts County FC) and Lady Bay (where Notts 2nd XI play).  It was largely built over with terraced housing, some of which remains but some demolished to make way for “The Meadows” estate.  Now it, in its turn, is partly boarded up and due for demolition, though that too seems to have been postponed due to lack of funds.Meadows 3 Meadows 4 (Ladysmock Gardens) Meanwhile the old Meadows are reclaiming their rightful territory, through the cracks and the abandoned front yards.

But The Meadows isn’t the only place where a thousand wild flowers are being allowed to bloom.  This is a small corner of the otherwise carefully tended Spa Fields in Clerkenwell

Spa Fields 1Spa Fields 2 and this a small patch in the equally well-tended Welland Park in Market Harborough.

Welland Park

I doubt whether lack of funds is the reason for the lack of mowing here, but equally I’m not sure that the mowers haven’t just “missed a bit”.  There is no doubt, though, about this, to the untrained eye, indistinguishable patch of mini-meadow in Canterbury, because there is a fence around it and a notice explaining that it has been left to bloom wild in the interests of conservation.

Canterbury : Wylde Flowers 2Canterbury : Wylde Flowers 3

and another patch elsewhere leaves even less room for doubt.

Canterbury : Wylde Flowers

It does occur to me that this admirable determination to nurture wild flowers seems to have less success so far than Nottingham’s inability to pay its verge-cutters.  (Not quite the truth, I suspect, but a comforting thought for those of us who have been neglecting our blogs, flower-beds or even back lawns for several weeks now, so I’m sticking to it.)

Lord Harris and a Horse Trough : Memorials of Canterbury

In setting my Grand Christmas Quiz, I see I may have implied that Lord Harris had a memorial garden dedicated to him in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral.  A return visit yesterday reveals that my memory was imperfect (I may have been confusing the genuine Cathedral with the “Cathedral of Cricket“, where I believe he does have a kind of champagne-garden named after him).  What is in Canterbury is a cloistered garden of remembrance for the “men and women of Kent who fell in the Great War“, which “by his help was made”.

Harris Garden at Canterbury Cathedral

The garden itself struck me as an austere (indeed monastic) space, though that may have been the effect of visiting in late afternoon on a cold day in March.

Harris Garden at Canterbury Cathedral

It also features a number of enigmatic stone inscriptions that might have strayed in from Little Sparta, such as this:

Harris Garden inscription

and this:

Harris Garden inscription

I doubt that these additions would have met with the approval of His Lordship.  I also, sadly, doubt whether it is true that he is “held in grateful memory by all lovers of cricket and field games”.  Even those who don’t confuse him with Lord Hawke (the Archbishop of York to his Canterbury) are more likely to remember him as reactionary, imperialist and autocratic, a high Victorian who lived on into the Jazz Age, and accused Percy Fender and Lionel Tennyson, for instance, of “Bolshevism” for refusing to lead their teams out at Lord’s from a separate entrance to the professionals (a practice which, contrary to popular belief, was not common elsewhere).

I also, personally, doubt whether any man could have been quite as one-dimensional as Harris is conventionally portrayed.  In fact, anyone who genuinely fancies themselves as an “alternative” cricket-writer could do worse than attempt a rehabilitation of his reputation.

(On the subject of memorials in Canterbury, I rather liked this homelier example, a horse-trough turned flower bed in the high street:

Canterbury horse trough

The allusion here is to Job 39:21 “He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men.“)