Friday, 23 December 2011

Cricket, I confess

Cricket, I confess, was never my strong point, though of all team games it was the one I most enjoyed. My father first taught me to play, pacing out a wicket on the rectory lawn. To this day, one of my proudest memories from childhood is of coming home for the summer holidays at the end of my first year at prep school, and bowling dad with a perfect off-break, first ball.

His look of astonishment, turning rapidly to pride in his son's new-found prowess, matched mine. He marched down the wicket, grinning broadly, shook my hand and then gave me a rare hug. 'Well done!" he said. "I say! Congratulations!" "Thanks, Dad," I replied. I don't think he and I ever loved each other so much as we did at that moment. I miss him.

I played in my prep school XI for three years, and later got, once, into the 2nd. XI at St. John’s, my next school. I played no cricket in the five years I was at university. When I started teaching, at Bedford School, I coached a junior team for a while, but the standard of cricketing expertise among the staff was generally high (there were at least three blues among them - including the headmaster; it was that sort of school) and I felt myself out of my league. I was sure the boys could tell I wasn't up to the job. Still, I enjoyed the idea that cricket mattered at Bedford: Jack Hobbs had had his first job in professional cricket there - as a groundsman.

My mother once gave me a photograph of Jack Hobbs, signed by the great man himself in the bottom right-hand corner. She was upset, I remember, when I told her proudly I had swapped it with a boy at school for an autograph by Trevor Bailey. Bailey's was a flamboyant scrawl, the sort of autograph I thought a famous cricketer should produce, like a flashy cover drive. ‘J B Hobbs', by contrast, was a neat, almost copperplate, signature: nothing extrovert about it. That wasn't his style. 

These recollections have been prompted by two pieces in today's TLS. There is a review of a new biography of Jack Hobbs by Leo McKinstry, subtitled 'England's greatest cricketer'. The reviewer admits it is hard to argue against this claim but qualifies it by saying that "Hobbs's career was one of relentless self-improvement rather than of innate brilliance." If I were a graphologist, I'd say that's exactly what his autograph signature suggests: someone conscientious, hard-working, unimaginative. The reviewer sums him up by quoting John Arlott's verdict: "An unassuming man ...  Making it all so simple." Making it all so simple is what great batsmen do. If there is an English cricketer at the moment who stands any chance of equalling Hobbs's achievement, it's someone else with the gift of making it seem so simple while managing to maintain ferocious concentration - Alastair Cook, who also learned his cricket at Bedford School (long after my time).

The Hobbs biography review is tucked away at the back of the TLS. The second piece that caught my eye has an oblique link to the first, though no one else may notice it. Much nearer the front, and entitled 'Loafing about', is a long and very complimentary review by A.N. Wilson of a new edition of the letters of P.G. Wodehouse (P.G. Wodehouse: a life in letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe). Wilson admires 'Plum' Wodehouse greatly, summing him up as "a humane man who put jokes first". He quotes a letter from Wodehouse to an old school friend from Dulwich College, written during the Second World War:

"I was thrilled by what you told me about Dulwich winning all its school matches last cricket season .... It's odd but I don't find world cataclysms and my own personal troubles make any difference to my feelings about Dulwich. To win the Bedford match seems just as important to me as it ever did".

Dulwich and Bedford still play an annual cricket fixture (this year’s match was abandoned because of rain). But I wonder if it means as much to anyone today as it evidently meant to Wodehouse?

The other day I found an article I once wrote about Edmund Blunden and his love of cricket. It was never published. But Blunden too had written about Jack Hobbs, in his book Cricket Country (1944), recalling that

Of Hobbs the well-graced I retain a very particular impression ... his ability to make the lightning ball appear to be in no hurry at all, so far as he and his bat were concerned.

Blunden described cricket as more than a science:  “a wheel of fortune, and a drama of personalities and intentions … a poem, a vision, a philosophy". Indeed, in one of his most famous poems, 'Cricket, I confess', Blunden gives up the struggle to explain cricket to a foreign friend and allows his mind to wander:

I fell silent, while kind memories played
Bat and ball in the sunny past, not much dismayed
Why these things were, and why I liked them so.
O my Relf and Jess and Hutchings long ago.

I know why I like this poem so. Cricket invites nostalgia, and here Blunden executes a deft reverse sweep of memory. His last line recalls the most famous refrain in English cricketing poetry, from 'At Lord's' by Francis Thompson. Thompson, author of 'The Hound of Heaven', remembers watching Lancashire playing at Lord's and, standing on the boundary of his own life, he calls up the ghosts of the two greatest cricketing heroes of his youth:

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

[illustration: Sir Jack Hobbs, cricketer

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Edmund Blunden today

Every year, in the run-up to Christmas, the Times Literary Supplement has a weekly feature on its back page entitled Perambulatory Christmas Books. NB, the TLS’s columnist, goes ‘touring the capital’s second-hand bookshops, in search of a neglected work by an established author, for about £5’. This week he has visited Any Amount of Books in the Charing Cross Road, still (just about) the first place to look in London for second-hand bookshops.

NB reminds us, in today’s TLS, that it was at the same shop, five years ago, 'that we found in the outdoor barrow Edmund Blunden’s The Face of England (1932), priced £1, and read the opening paragraph. No one could write like that now, we thought; the tune has been lost. We asked ourselves why, and with that the good ship Perambulation was launched.'

I’m delighted to see Blunden is still being acknowledged in this way. He himself had been an assistant editor for the TLS during the Second World War and he is a writer who must not be allowed to slip out of view. His style is indeed distinctive: wry, observant, with a hint of Charles Lamb. Here he is talking (his written voice is usually a talking voice) about Japanese food:

It is in Japan that certain tastes and savours are understood which may scarcely receive proper attention elsewhere. The sea is the giver of these, and the thanks of the present author are hereby offered to the Pacific Ocean for such generosity as also, to the Japanese enthusiasts who have so long known how to appreciate it. The various sea-weed dishes are good; and when the baker of sembei uses a sea-weed for part of that biscuit, he does very well indeed. Our small daughters have noticed that!
   I forget if I encountered the sea-urchin when I was in the country last, — I think not; against this little creature I have no grudge at all, and “may his tribe increase.” But I find him highly enjoyable when he is converted into a light paste, and accompanied with a little rice. (A Wanderer in Japan, 1950, pp. 107-8)

“May his tribe increase” is a nod in the direction of James Leigh Hunt’s once-famous poem ‘Abou ben Adhem’. Blunden was a scholar particularly at home with the Romantic essayists: he edited their work, and wrote biographies of both Leigh Hunt and Lamb. After praising raw fish, in the same essay on Japanese Food, as ‘a masterpiece of the menu’, Blunden admits, with characteristic self-deprecation, that  ‘It needs an essayist like Elia, who has tried his skill in the absorption and eulogy of Roast Pig, to come and describe the blessings of o-sashimi.’

It’s worth trying to imagine how English readers might have reacted to Blunden’s enthusiasm for sea-weed and raw fish, in the still-rationed years after the Second World War. No sushi bars or soy sauce in those days: a Lyons Corner House or Kardomah Café was as close as most people got to ‘going out for a meal’, and the only sauce on the tables there came in sticky red or brown bottles.  More outrageously still, what was Blunden doing in Japan, of all places, so soon after the end of the war? And why had he taken his wife and young children with him?

Blunden knew the country well: in the 1920s he had been Professor of English at Tokyo University and had won a remarkable reputation for his willingness to tour Japan and lecture on English literature, offering Japanese students of this period an almost unique window onto western culture. And it was while there that he wrote was to become his most important and enduring work, Undertones of War, published in 1928.

So, after the Second World War, he was invited to return to Japan, this time as Cultural Adviser to the United Kingdom Liaison Commission. This was meant to be a one-year appointment, but his presence in Japan was so influential in helping to re-build bridges that he was asked to stay on, with his family, for a second year. It was during this time that he wrote the essays and poems which make up A Wanderer in Japan, though the title was misleading: he did anything but wander. Based in Tokyo but travelling to universities, cities and towns all over the country, in two years he delivered over 600 lectures. So great was the esteem in which he was held that many of the universities where he came to speak erected tablets to commemorate his visit. These can still be seen.

Blunden was not quite eighteen when the Great War broke out. He fought in it, in France and Belgium, for three years. He spent longer at the Front than any of the other war poets. His war poems, his memoir of the war, and perhaps particularly his poems reflecting on the war and its enduring aftermath make him one of the most important voices of the war. It’s not surprising that Paul Fussell devoted a whole chapter to Blunden in his seminal book, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

The centenary of the start of the Great War approaches fast, and I hope Blunden’s writing will find new readers as a result. He believed – and in his work in Japan and the Far East proved – that literature can make a difference to people's lives in ways most politicians could not even dream of. He hated war, but war taught him nothing is more destructive than hatred. In fact, with Abou ben Adhem (“may his tribe increase”) Blunden might well have said to the recording angel:

“I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

 [photo: the commemorative plaque outside Edmund Blunden's home in Long Melford, Suffolk.

To visit the Edmund Blunden website, click here.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Re-reading Julian Barnes (i): Cover Story

There’s an excellent article in last weekend’s Guardian Review. In ‘Cover me beautiful’ Kathryn Hughes celebrates the return of high-quality book design: she starts by congratulating Julian Barnes for paying tribute – in his Booker Prize acceptance speech – to the design and the designer of his novel The Sense of an Ending. She describes the cover of his book as “an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks, which darkens at the edge to black, an idea of mourning that then runs over the edges of the pages themselves”.

Hughes argues that publishers have realized they need to be more attentive to the design of traditional books now that e-books have become a serious threat. I don’t want to get into a debate about this: I love books, I love owning them and having them around me, on my shelves, on my desk, in my attic; but I know e-books are the future and in that future I hope there will be room for both.  There are good things you can do with e-books that you can’t with ordinary books – and vice versa. Let’s leave it at that.

Kathryn Hughes is right, though, about the cover of The Sense of an Ending – up to a point. I can’t help thinking that, in describing it as ‘an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks’ she has understated the relationship between the book and its cover. In fact, the cover relates specifically to an important but easily overlooked passage in the novel.

Tony, the central character and narrator of the novel, reflects on the idea behind the image of getting under somebody’s skin. He wants to get under the skin of the woman who, forty years ago, had briefly been his girlfriend at university and now has unexpectedly resurfaced to disturb his quiet life. He recalls that his ex-wife, Margaret, used to prepare roast chicken by slipping butter and herbs between the skin and the flesh of the bird. He remembers having admired the skill with which she used to do this, and then adds as an aside: ‘I’ve never tried it myself, then or since; my fingers are too clumsy, and I imagine them ripping the skin.’ Poor, un-self-aware Tony speaks proleptically, and truer than he knows: the book is about how he discovers what damage he caused years and years before, and never realized or even thought about it.

The Sense of an Ending is very much a novel about memory and its perils: Tony refers at the start to ‘some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’. This memory of his ex-wife preparing chicken leads to another. Margaret had reminded him of a French variation on this theme where the chicken was prepared by inserting slices of black truffle under the skin, creating a dish known as Chicken in Half-Mourning. The French call it Demi-Deuil. As the pigment from the truffle seeps upwards through the skin, it creates shades of pink, grey, purple and black; and it’s this, subtly but specifically, to which the cover of The Sense of an Ending alludes.

The choice of this apparently passing reference to cookery as the subject of the cover should take every reader back to the place where it occurs in the story (pp.109-10). Less than a page in length, it has been actually framed by Julian Barnes in a way unique in this novel. Tony begins it by breaking off from his narrative to comment:

I said I wanted to get under her skin, didn’t I? It’s an odd expression, and one that always makes me think of Margaret’s way of roasting a chicken.

He ends by reflecting briefly on how these days – never mind half-mourning - we stay in mourning barely long enough to get home from the crematorium after a funeral. Then he breaks off this reverie:

Sorry, that’s a bit off the track. I wanted to get under her skin, that’s what I said, didn’t I? Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else? ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ – that’s a love song, isn’t it?

The whole novel is in the form of a confession, by a man who has come to realize he has much to confess. But nowhere else in its 150 pages does Tony speak so directly to his reader, even asking for our help in remembering what he is trying to say. Actually, this is a sly piece of indirection on the novelist’s part: he isn’t off the track at all, as the book’s cover reminds us. Nor is he about to answer his own question, ‘Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else?’ He leaves that to us, in this way making us uncomfortably complicit in his ‘meditation on memory and regret’ (the Guardian Review again) as if we know the story as well, or better, than he does. Indeed, after re-reading this remarkably allusive novel, I’ve concluded that the line best summing up Julian Barnes’s sense of the relationship between narrator and reader is Baudelaire’s:

Vous, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

[photo: Guardian Review (Saturday 3 December 2011) and Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011). Cover design by Suzanne Dean.