The GameWith TheWalking-
The walk that shaped my life
The sun was slow in the early morning sky. The air fragrant with the smell of fresh fern and bracken. And dew-drops glistened on the grass. That was how the earth looked the day my father took me on the walk that shaped my life. I was barely 5 years-old and he was just a few months demobbed from the Seventh Armoured Division, the famous “Desert Rats”, who were then stationed inGermanyat the end of the Second World War. The village was still asleep as we walked along the empty road. Those who had had to go to work had gone to work, while those that did not still slumbered in their beds. The village life of North-westKentin 1947 hovered between its pre-war rustic idyll and the noisy modernisation that came with the motor-way in 1963.
My father carried a walking-stick - and as we walked I bounced a rubber ball. On the edge of the cricket field, where the wet green grass was still crisp, Dad searched for and found a stick of a certain length which he stuck upright into the ground. Then he took off his jacket, a new white sports jacket, which, after he had swept dry the surrounding grass, he draped over the stick. With signs and few words, as if I should understand already the purpose of this ritual, he bade me defend the propped-up jacket with the walking-stick while he tried to knock it down with the ball. He was right – I knew instinctively what had to be done.
That was my introduction to cricket, the sport which has formed the back-drop to my life.
Cricket on the wireless, cricket on the village green, and cricket with the walking-stick
All morning we played with the walking-stick, the ball and the jacket until the sun, high in the sky, had dried the dew. Once or twice I managed to strike the ball into the patch of stinging-nettles and dock-leaves set in the corner of the field behind the hedgerow. Whenever I did so Dad seemed to be pleased. More often than not, though, I missed the ball, the ball missed the jacket, and I had to chase it into the thick grass on the boundary. One time the ball struck a pebble, stood up on a length and hit me in the teeth. The hurt didn’t matter – I was playing cricket. By the time that morning had ended I had learned such terms as cut, and drive, wicket, pitch, spin, length and delivery, and understood that in hitting the ball into or through the off-side I should get my feet into position as a certain Mr Cyril Washbrook was not inclined so to do with the result that he gave his wicket away. That, was clearly a heinous offence.
I understood, too, instinctively that the game we played with the walking-stick and ball was related directly to the activity I saw practised by teams of men dressed in white on that same green field on a Saturday, only they played with a harder ball and something more substantial than a stick, and I knew also that both games were part of that wider sport of “cricket” which I heard described by commentators on the wireless. That I should know it was strange in itself. There had been no cricket in the war years when I was growing up. My maternal grandfather with whom I was raised while my father was away on service had no particular love of the game and would not have spoken of it. The only time that I had gone to the village field previously was for some VE-Day and VJ-Day celebrations – clowns, parades, parties and all that. When the concept of cricket first hit my consciousness, as it did with the arrival of springtime in 1947, it did so in its entirety with cricket on the wireless, cricket on the village green, and cricket with the walking-stick and ball.
The cricket field taught me much about the social context of life. The village wasn’t really a village as such. It was a hamlet with a few “extra” locations added on. In addition to the cricket field it had the Green Man public house, an all-purpose corner-shop, a short shopping parade with the post-office, the butcher’s and the electrician’s, a small petrol-filling station cum garage, one public telephone-box, and a twice daily visit by the parish police constable. We had to go to the village proper about a mile or two away for such amenities as a church, a school, the railway-station, and something like real shops. The doctors’ surgery was further away still.
A sense of pride and self-esteem
Yet it had what mattered – a good cricket team which took in a cross-section of village society. And the team really was good. The players knew how to play cricket and they gave the inhabitants of this small locality a sense of pride and self-esteem. On those occasions that they were defeated – which didn’t happen all that often – curtains in the houses along the main street were drawn as if in mourning. People were known to their neighbours mainly by the function they performed in cricket rather than by their occupation. Tony and Jack – the fast bowlers; Arthur – the wicketkeeper; Fred – as a cussed an opening batsman as you would not want to find; and Frank, the best cover-point who had ever set foot on the field of play. Or so it was said. When they weren’t doing something important, that is playing cricket, they also respectively drove the farm tractor, kept the council waterworks going, checked tickets on the local bus, and delivered the post. The schoolmaster, the doctor and the vicar didn’t play – they didn’t have to because their social positions were assured already.
That the team had a home field was due to the largesse of a local land-owner. The old man, himself, had a very hands-on approach to the club but after helping to set up the village Home Guard in the early days of the War he fell out of the picture. When the “boys came home” and cricket was resumed he had already passed on. His son – it was said that he was “something in the City” – had little time for us and for our rural ways, but he did let us keep the lease on the cricket field with the proviso that if any of his family or any of his merchant friends wanted a spot of weekend “sport” they would have an automatic place in the team.
He held no position, and yet he was every position
The day-to-day running of the club became the charge of the pub landlord, who was fac-totem and, if you will, dic-totem. His writ ran everywhere. Ruddy, pinched-faced and with a meanful mien he was dubbed “Happy Jack” by those outside his immediate coterie for the simple reason that they didn’t think he was. He mowed the grass, marked the creases, and whitened the boundaries – handled the correspondence, called the meetings (such as they were) and picked the teams – everything except actually play the game. He held no position, and yet he was every position. Each week Jack sent out the postcards informing those he had chosen to play, and one for the twelfth-man asking him to put himself on stand-by. As to whether he handled the job well, or was a good selector, the record spoke for itself. The team won much more often than it lost. That said something.
It was a profitable arrangement for Jack, too. All the club’s business passed through his pub. It was said that the more a man drank at his bar the more often he was picked for cricket – but Jack was more shrewd than that. He wanted the kudos of running a successful team, a team of the best, not of the favoured. Even so when it came to filling the last two to three places in the eleven, players whose performance have no real impact on the course of the game, it did no harm to be on hand when it mattered. The club’s meetings were held at the pub – there was hardly anywhere else – and with that hooked attendance “Happy Jack” could arrange the winter excursions to the circus, to the pantomime, even to the Palladium inLondon. Nobody said “Good old Jack” but they knew nobody else who could do it. His influence on village cricket was so pervasive that some older residents can recall quite clearly, and quite erroneously, that he was also the captain. As I have said, I can vouch that Jack never put on the whites. The captain was somebody else altogether, a more shadowy personality in comparison to the man who was the source of power and influence.
“I don’t know how you do it, Rev’d”
The pub was so central to social life that the new vicar made it one of his first ports of call in getting to know the village.
“Would you like a drink on the house, Rev’d?” Jack offered.
“Just a little cider” replied the cleric.
The vicar was a seemingly wimpish, scholarly man, somewhat deaf, and the publican winked knowingly to the regulars as he poured him a glass of a particularly potent cider they had been reserving for just such a naive stranger. One glass followed another, and, to cut a long story short, those regulars who had tried to keep pace with the clergyman were soon under the table incapacitated while he downed yet another cider unflustered.
“I don’t know how you do it, Rev’d” Jack observed. “That was our strongest drink”.
“Perhaps I should have told you” the vicar ventured. “I have spent the greater part of my life as a missionary on the Amazon. Once you have tasted the native brews, you can drink anything”.
The cathedral and the cricket
Our vicar played no role in the cricket. I cannot remember ever having seen him at a game. That does not mean that he was not a fan. Quite the contrary, in fact. He loved cricket, sprinkling his sermons with various similes and metaphors of the willow and the wicket. He knew the averages of the country’s leading batsmen and bowlers, and after he had settled among us for a few years he accompanied my father, my brother and myself to see a Test Match at the London Oval. As chairman of the church outings committee the vicar arranged that every year the faithful should visitCanterbury. We always had a very early start to give us plenty of time to visit the cathedral and then get along quickly to the St Lawrence ground so that we did not miss a single ball in the day’s play in the game between Kent and that year’s tourists. Nevertheless the Rev’d did not fit in with the very special ethos of village cricket. There were definite qualifications for those who did belong – and these included those who made their living from the land as landlord or labourers, small businessmen, and families who had lived in the village a very long time.
Fight the good fight, and all that”
The next village across the hills had a wholly different attitude. There the vicar was expected to join in everything – and you couldn’t stop him doing it. The then incumbent, an ebullient extrovert – “he’ll go far” people said “he’s got the makings of a bishop” (and they were right) – was referee for the football, dressed in black with much blowing of his whistle, and umpired the cricket, with just as much waving of the arms and judgmental opinions on all appeals. (An appeal to Caesar would have been less intimidating than one made to “his reverence”).
His tour de force came however, at the village summer fete. A boxing booth was set up from early morning. It was traditional to have a beauty contest for the girls and boxing for the boys. Those were innocent days before the self-appointed roundheads of our deeds and thoughts, more opinionated than this vicar, and less forgiving, had them removed from the social calendar. Of course, there were boxing booths and boxing booths, and as boxing booths go this one was friendly enough. My grand-dad told the story of a very different sort of boxing booth set up in the London Docks where he worked when he was not under arms defending his country. A black seaman, as imposing a specimen of physical manhood as they could find, was paraded as being the champion of All Africa, ofJamaica, of theCongo, or however the barker decided to describe him. It helped the promotional spiel that Jack Johnson, the first “negro” to hold the title, was then the heavyweight champion of the world. Prospective punters were invited, against a small acceptance fee for daring to do so, to try to knock him out and win a prize. The champion’s own reward was paid to him in food rather than cash. He was allowed to have all he could eat at one sitting. It was sumptuous recompense for a starving seaman in the pre-war depression. There was one catch, however. The meal had to be eaten before, not after, the boxing. The sated “champion”, who almost always won, appeared to be laboured in his movement and sluggish in hunting down his opponents - and, thereby, other challengers were the more willing to try their luck against him.
The booths at the fete were less cynical – I presume. The “champion” was muscular and forbidding enough to put off most of the local lads from “giving it a go”. The youths stood around giggling and goading each other.
That’s when the vicar made his move.
Judging his moment to perfection the barker issued his challenge again, and again. There was a movement in the small but growing crowd of onlookers from out of which the vicar stepped through the ropes. He handed over his Bible – we always assumed it was the “good book” he carried but for all we knew it could have been the telephone directory – and started to roll up his shirt-sleeves.
“No, no, vicar, I didn’t mean you” the barker cried in mock horror. “Fight the good fight and all that. It’s a noble thought but we need you in one piece for the service tomorrow. Now aren’t you strong young lads ashamed to let a man of peace do your fighting? Aren’t your girlfriends ashamed of you?”
The spectators laughed, and they were still laughing when the loudest-talking of the youths was cajoled into trying on the gloves. After that it was comparatively easy for the barker to pick off his companions one by one. None held back – they didn’t want their girlfriend to see them shirking while their friends braved the bruiser. When it was over and the boys were nursing the effects of one or two light punches on their nostrils, but with their pride and credibility restored, and their arms around the waist of their adoring girlfriend, they found that the vicar had moved on. By then he was talking gullible grannies into entering the knobbly knees contest, mothers to support the baby show, and just about everybody to do anything that would bring a bob or two into the church coffer.
“It’s all in a good cause, you know”.
We in our village were different. We had our cricket which, thank goodness, had been kept away from mammon. The two do not mix – World Series Cricket, the IPL and other mercenary codes all these years afterwards notwithstanding. “Happy Jack” took the game very seriously, and so did we.
A pitch on which to play, and a pub in which to talk the evening away afterwards ….
I would settle for that any time.
Hambledon, itself, could not have been better appointed.
If P.C. Bates is there – keep going
The village pub is still there. At least, it was the other day when I went there to check it out before writing this piece. Yes, the pub may still be there, though it is now a restaurant, modernised and part of a national franchised chain of eateries. “Happy Jack” would turn in his grave, if he had found any peace at all. The village was still the village – just – hugely over-developed and over-run with motor-cars. Yet the planners had not added to the thin, truncated ribbon of shops and amenities. It could still pass very much for being the descendant of that village in which I had grown up. The small patch of green opposite the pub looked the same even if the public phone-box had been removed – redundant in an age of mobile-phones. I pointed out to my wife the spot where P.C. Bates had kept watch. He stood there at the same hours each day – the burglars knew well enough when and where to plan their strike – before getting on his bike and cycling off to the other points which he guarded similarly on his tour of duty. Many a time my grandmother, Aunt Mag as she was known to her neighbours, had pressed an envelope into my tiny hand with the instruction that I should hand it to the landlord of the pub …. “but not if Mr Bates is there – if he is there keep going, don’t stop”. These envelopes contained her brother’s betting-slips (or were they her own?) at a time when off-course betting was illegal. “Happy Jack” gathered in the wagers and phoned them through to his contact at the races. Did P.C. Bates, I wonder, slip in his own envelope when nobody else was looking?
The mecca of my dreams of childhood
Only one thing was different. I took my wife to see the cricket field, the mecca of my dreams of childhood – but it wasn’t there. Rather, there was a square of grass, much smaller than the majestic Oval of my recollection. Dotted here and there I saw some children’s swings and slides. Nobody was interested enough to use them and they were rusting. Perhaps that is unjust – it was after all school term-time. Those thunderous drives for six of such fond memory which had ended up in the orchard across the road would have travelled no further than the width of three slides and a mini-roundabout. Tony’s terrifying run-up into his fire-breathing delivery stride was no longer than the length of the pitch itself – otherwise it would not have fitted into the cramped space that was available. And the yards which I had scurried back to the boundary to hold, and then drop, my first catch could have fitted into our own very small front-room.
There were compensations. It was still before noon. The bracken was moist and the fresh fern was fragrant. There in that very spot on which my father had found the branch to prop up his jacket I saw some sticks of similar size just waiting to be gathered. Yes, I have brought with me my ball and walking-stick ….. in my mind’s eye, Horatio, in my mind’s eye.
It is time to play.
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