Friday, 11 November 2011

Lest we forget

Though cricket imagery rarely features in the work of the great war poets,  an ideal of cricket was an important part of what they, and their many comrades who fell and who survived, were fighting for.  Both Seigfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden two of the most important poets of World War 1 were devoted cricket fans.

Sassoon's best known eulogy to the cricket he loved comes in the description of the Flower Show Match in his Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man published in 1928.  In this piece he describes how the central character, modelled on the young Sassoon himself, comes home from boarding school on an idyllic sumer weekend and is invited to play in the match - an annual tussle between neighbouring villages.  He fantasises about scoring like his heroes of county cricket as reported in the morning newspaper.  All the ingredients of what was to become the characteristic literary description of village cricket are there: the collection of highly skilled village worthies across the class spectrum who have their own unique contribution to make.  It so happens that the Sassoon character bats at the end of the day and, almost accidentally, scores the winning runs.

Edmund Blunden
Edmund Blunden's Cricket Country (1944) maybe a lesser known work - indeed FB has to confess he has not managed to find a copy or to read it.  He understands it rhapsodises about Blunden's memories of village cricket.  Blunden's obituary described him as obsessed with cricket and recalls him playing the game ardently and badly.  He was wont to open the batting for the Publisher's XI and made no use of batting gloves.  In his own words,  "The game which made me write at all, is not terminated at the boundary, but is reflected beyond, is echoed and varied out there among the gardens and the barns, the dells and the thickets, and belongs to some wider field."  As with Sassoon cricket is a community idyll.

Seigfried Sassoon
Sassoon continued his interest in cricket until his ripe old age, and maintained his own cricket ground at his home at Heytesbury House in Wiltshire.  His last recorded outing was in 1962 in a match for the Ravens, a side convened by an acquaintance at nearby Downside College, against a side named the Mells.  He was 77.  There was a conspiracy among players of both sides to help teh venerable gentleman get to double figures and a series of gentle full tosses was offered to him.  Having missed four, he connected with the fifth only to offer simplest of dolly catches to mid off, thus undermining the well intentioned conspiracy.  As he walked off he was heard to mutter to himself,  'The bowling was not worthy of me.'   He died 5 years later.

Sassoon had over the years gained a reputation for his unique fielding style.  He would stand to attention as the ball approached him, no matter its velocity, and take the pace of it with his shins before bending to pick it up and return it.  This was not through any stiffness in his back, for his friends recall him being perfectly able to bend to tie his laces without bending his knees.

Here is one poem of Sassoon's which directly makes reference to cricket:

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Many cricketers have fallen in the various wars of the 20th and 21st Century to protect, amongst other things, our freedom to play. We shall remember.

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