“Little Beauty” : Rupert Brooke On Baseball

Another of the tourist attractions of Rugby, vaguely topical as Remembrance Day approaches, is this statue of Rupert Brooke, located close to the (very ordinary) house in which he was born.  It is the creation of Ivor Robert-Jones (also responsible for the statue of Churchill in Westminster Square).  I’m in two minds about its worth as a memorial – something about its barefootedness suggests the Style Editor of GQ Magazine wondering which socks to wear that day.

Rupert Brooke 2

Was Brooke a cricketer?  Only an active one at school, apparently (like many, he seems to have given up playing when he went to University) but, in searching for a connection, I came across this passage from a letter he wrote while visiting the USA in 1913, describing a visit to a baseball game between Harvard and Yale:

“One of the great events of Commencement, and of the year, is the Harvard-Yale baseball match. To this I went, excited at the prospect of my first sight of a ‘ball game,’ and my mind vaguely reminiscent of the indolent, decorous, upper-class crowd, the sunlit spaces, the dignified ritual, and white-flannelled grace of Lord’s at the ‘Varsity cricket match. The crowd was gay, and not very large.

… I had time to observe the players, who were practising about the ground, and I was shocked. They wear dust-coloured shirts and dingy knickerbockers, fastened under the knee, and heavy boots. They strike the English eye as being attired for football, or a gladiatorial combat, rather than a summer game. The very close-fitting caps, with large peaks, give them picturesquely the appearance of hooligans. Baseball is a good game to watch, and in outline easy to understand, as it is merely glorified rounders. A cricketer is fascinated by their rapidity and skill in catching and throwing. There is excitement in the game, but little beauty except in the long-limbed ‘pitcher,’ whose duty it is to hurl the ball rather further than the length of a cricket-pitch, as bewilderingly as possible. In his efforts to combine speed, mystery, and curve, he gets into attitudes of a very novel and fantastic, but quite obvious, beauty. M. Nijinsky would find they repay study.

One queer feature of this sport is that unoccupied members of the batting side, fielders, and even spectators, are accustomed to join in vocally. You have the spectacle of the representatives of the universities endeavouring to frustrate or unnerve their opponents, at moments of excitement, by cries of derision and mockery, or heartening their own supporters and performers with exclamations of ‘Now, Joe!’ or ‘He’s got them!’ or ‘He’s the boy!’

This interested me partly because I’ve recently been reading Ed Smith’s earliest (and, I think, best, least Gladwellian) book “Playing Hard Ball” (about baseball and its relationship to cricket).  Smith too was surprised by the way in which “unoccupied members of the batting side” get involved in the game, particularly the way that “the dugouts empty” (i.e. the coaches and spare players leap out and square up to each other at moments on dispute on the pitch), but I doubt whether he or any contemporary English observer would be surprised to hear the fieldsmen, let alone the spectators “joining in vocally”.  Brooke, too, might have been less surprised if he had watched his cricket at – say – Bramall Lane.

What divides Brooke from Smith (and most modern writers about cricket) is that he expects to find beauty in the game : Brooke is an aesthete, Smith an intellectual.  Cricket still attracts any number of  intellectuals (often with a political, philosophical, economic or especially statistical bent) but I’d say aesthetes (if there are any left) have shifted their attention elsewhere.  The strain of aestheticism (not always of the purest greenery-yallery kind) that runs through earlier writers about the game such as E. V. Lucas, Edmund Blunden, Cardus (in his earliest Paterian phase) and Dudley Carew (none of them primarily writers about cricket, not even, in his own mind, Cardus) has been extinguished, with Arlott (by no means purely an aesthete, of course) perhaps the last of the breed.  The occasional white-clad figure stills flits to and fro o’er the greensward in the twilight, but to general derision.

As a footnote, it is interesting that Brooke pays so much attention to the baseball players’ outfits (“The very close-fitting caps, with large peaks, give them picturesquely the appearance of hooligans” is prescient).  Brooke’s own choice of leisurewear was described thus by Margaret Lavington in a 1915 memoir:

In those days he always dressed in the same way: cricket shirt and trousers and no stockings; in fact “Rupert’s mobile toes” were a subject for the admiration of his friends.”

This appears to be his costume in the Rugby statue and presumably, in the best-known depictions of him, that loose-fitting, soft collared poetical shirt is actually his cricket shirt.  Would a modern Brooke care to be seen in public in, say, the current England one-day strip, let alone some of the monstrous creations in polyester that have been foisted on our County sides in recent years (socks or no socks)?  I think not.  Not that I’m suggesting that this is why our latter-day aesthetes have fled the cricket field, but clearly it can’t help matters.

Rugby : Birthplace Of Rugby

Another feint at writing about Rugby.

I visited the town of Rugby a couple of weeks ago, to the casual visitor a curious place.  Its main claim to fame (and a share of the tourist trade) is the school which dominates the town in a way that other, comparable, schools, do not.  The school is not actively hostile to visitors (it offers guided tours and there was an exhibition by local artists open to the public in one of its buildings) but nor does it positively invite them.  Its other lure is as the (debated) birthplace of Rugby football, and it does its best to enhance its attraction on that basis.

The Rugby Pathway of Fame is a trail of plaques inset in the pavement that visitors can follow to guide them around the town’s places of interest.  Each plaque commemorates a significant figure in the history of the game.  The selection is ecumenical (League players such as Billy Boston and Neil Fox are featured) and goes out of its way to celebrate players from every Rugby playing nation (the Japanese player Shiggy Konno, for instance, who is said to have been “deprived of an international career by the war”).

The route takes in a small, but interesting, museum at the site where William Gilbert, boot and shoe maker to Rugby School, apparently made the first (oval) Rugby football in 1842 (the earliest balls were much rounder than the type we know today) and a statue of William Webb Ellis, apparently funded by “worldwide subscription” and unveiled by Jeremy Guscott in 1997.

Webb Ellis

Interesting though all this is, I am a little surprised that it is enough to attract pilgrims from all over the world, as is apparently the case (it seems to have been a custom for touring sides to visit William Gilbert’s shop to have their picture taken there, for instance) and I have to say that the only part of my trip that inspired any sharp emotional response was this – the Cricket Pavilion at Rugby School in its Autumnal weeds (the crow in the foreground has just made short work of the ex-pigeon to the left of the picture).

Rugby cricket pavilion

I would defy any cricket-lover to pass a cricket ground in Winter without feeling at least a slight pang of longing and regret for the Summer months.  I maintain an open mind as to whether there are Rugby-lovers who experience the same longings when they glimpse a pair of H-shaped posts in high Summer, or who, slumped comfortably in a deck-chair on a fine June day, dream of pacing the touchline with labrador in tow and a nip of grog in their hipflask, but I am doubtful.

My own feeling is that there is, among sports, an emotional register peculiar to cricket, but given that it encompasses the lower, or deeper or arguably simply mimsier end of the scale – nostalgia, wistfulness, regret, aimless longing for what can never be recovered and a heightened awareness of the passing of time – the more robust type of Rugger bugger might well feel justified in believing himself better off without it.


A Saturday medley

Looking back – how soon nostalgia creeps in! – I see that the first thing that I wrote on this blog was a simple description of what I had been doing on the Saturday I set it up.  At the beginning, before I got into my stride, I seem quite often to have produced something along these lines.  I don’t think anything I’ve done today merits a post of its own, so I thought I’d revert for a moment to that earlier style.  (The context here is that I’m going to Kettering to watch the football).

On my way from Kettering station to the town centre in the morning pass what used to be a rather elegant three-storey house but must, I think, have recently been home to a firm of solicitors or estate agents.  It is now up for rent.  In the front garden, as it were, huge piles of box files neatly labelled with the names of cases or clients.  Looks rather like an art installation of some sort.  Have a peek in one to see if there’s anything in it, but it’s empty.  In the evening, on my way back to the station, they’ve all vanished. Scavengers?

Grazing in the charity shops of Kettering I find a section in one of them labelled “Fancy dress”.  This contains all the clothes in the shop that I’d consider buying, in particular a rather nice half-belted Norfolk jacket in hairy tweed.  Do I always look as though I’m on my way to a fancy dress party?  (Note to self – return to this topic at a later date).

At the football, notice that only one half of the couple who normally sit next to me are there. Ask the female half  “Are you here on your own today?”.  Answer – “Yes, he’s in Australia”.  Don’t pursue this.

Poppies lose 1-0 to York.  Game enlivened by a 21 man scrap in the centre circle (the York keeper decided not to get involved).

Discover that Helena Bonham-Carter has a tortoise called Shelley.  She wasn’t actually at Poppies (though I hope – Heaven Forfend – she isn’t a Diamonds fan either) – I read this in the Guardian.

Drank in two pubs called The Cherry Tree in two different towns in the space of half an hour.  Couldn’t quite catch the 5.27 from Kettering to Harborough so waited in the CT in Kettering and watched some of the England v Wales rugby match on the TV.  Small group of rugby fans – one with a genuine cauliflower ear – watching the match.  Three other small groups discussing ailments – “It isn’t indigestion, it’s a build-up of acid in the stomach – I can feel it bubbling around at the back of my throat and I have to spit it out.”  CT in Little Bowden full of jubilant rugby fans.  Think of proposal for TV series, in which I  try to drink in every pub in the British Isles called the Cherry Tree in the space of a week, using only public transport.  I’d have a whale of a time doing this, but I’m not sure the viewing public would feel the same way, so not sure it has legs.

And what does all this add up to?  Well, nothing really, but  “Where can we live but days?”.



Players v. Gentlemen : a conspiracy against the laity

From this evening’s Standard, Wasps’ coach Shaun Edwards, on Stade Francais scrum-half Julien Dupuy, who has been cited for gouging the eyes of Ulster’s Stephen Ferris –

“He needs to get a serious ban for that.  To do it against a fellow professional is out of order.” 

Implying, presumably,  that it would be perfectly in order to try to poke the eyes out of an amateur, or a spectator, or possibly the referee.

I think the last other occupational group to go in for this kind of thing (professional solidarity, not poking each others’ eyes out) were comedians.  It used to be common to hear one comic (often one of the old school) say of another (usually what were then termed “alternative comedians”) –

“That’s one thing you just don’t do – slag off a fellow professional.”

All that’s gone by the board now, of course, but these antique decencies still persist among footballers and now, apparently, professional Rugby Union players.

If you tried talking about the amateur spirit, of course, you’d be sneered from here to Timbuctoo.

A windhover over the rugby

To continue, briefly, this series of British birds in action, this afternoon, as there was no football on, I watched Market Harborough Rugby Club bash out a well-deserved victory over Leicester Forest (30-odd to 12, I think). They’re a good side at the moment, incidentally, and well worth watching.

My attention was, though, sometimes distracted by the sight of a kestrel, or windhover hovering over what I suppose must have been the verge of the Northampton Road.  Kestrels have adapted themselves to modern life by hovering near to major roads and waiting for their prey to get run over though, in fairness, this one might have been hovering over the field that lies between the Northampton Road and the Brampton Valley Way.

Anyway, here is a rather beautiful film of a kestrel in action (I didn’t catch the swoop, if there was one – too absorbed in the onfield action) –

And here is a relevant poem – The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (I think, having watched the film,  you will be able to see what he means) –

The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.


Over-priced pants : Poppies v Altrincham, 5 September

I don’t promise – or threaten – to write about every football match I attend, but I thought I’d just record the fact that I went to my first match yesterday, where the Poppies remade their acquaintance with their old foes, Altrincham.

If anyone wonders why football journalists are so reliant on cliche and platitude, they should have a go at trying to say anything remotely novel or interesting about games such as this.  The etiquette would probably be to say that it was –

 “a scrappy, low key affair, between two sides who are yet to find their feet.  In a game neither side deserved to win, the match only really caught fire in the last five minutes, when the introduction of substitutes Moses (insert second name) and Gareth Seddon sparked a two goal blitz that brought the fans at the Elgoods to their feet and stunned the visiting support into silence”.  

In reality, it was a nasty shock to be reminded of quite how awful football at this level can be.  The status of the club in relationship to the highest levels of the game is probably the equivalent of the Market Harborough Rugby or Cricket Clubs, but those two are (mostly) amateurs, and it’s free to watch them.  Poppies are professionals, it costs £16.00 (or more) to watch for a seat in the stand and they attract crowds of 1-2,000.

The equivalent, in cricketing terms, of the endless aimless hoofing, the passes that habitually go to the opposition, the shots wide from ten yards that we saw yesterday would be bowlers bowling three wides an over, batsmen regularly hitting their own wickets, fieldsmen tripping over and knocking the ball over the boundary for four.  Even the diving and the feigning injury seemed to have a half-hearted quality about it.

In fact until the last five minutes the best entertainment of the day was provided by the Altrincham fans, and one bloke in particular who spent most of the match directing a stream of surreal abuse at Kettering manager Mark Cooper, apparently scripted by Reeves and Mortimer.  My favourite, which I’m still puzzling over, was “I bet you’re glad the price of petrol’s going up, Cooper!!! 

Inevitably I found myself sharing a carriage with this chap and his mates on the train home.  Seemed perfectly amiable types, though the Cooper-abuser confirmed his eccentricity by choosing to sit in the luggage rack.

It’s this kind of thing that keeps me going back, I must say, rather than the football.

But, of coure, I will be back.

(Just to make matters worse, I’d chosen to watch this great heap of over-priced pants in preference to the last day of Leicestershire v Glamorgan, where, yet again,  James Taylor (I think I may have mentioned him before) saved the game with an unbeaten 96 not out.  Over his last 11 Championship innings he is now averaging 93.  Don Bradman, look to your laurels!)

Adventures in nature study

This morning, as I was going out into the backyard, half an eggshell – sky blue and brown-speckled – was carried from somewhere by a gust of wind and narrowly missed  hitting me on the head.  Presumably it belonged to one of commonest types of British bird (surprising if there was anything else in our garden), but I’ve no idea which it might be.  Memo to self – buy Observer’s Book of British Birds and try to find out.

On walk with Mother she points out woodland flowers called Jack-in-the-pulpits; apparently bright purple in bloom and poisonous.  Unknown to me – perhaps some remnant of anti-episcopal sentiment there?

Late news – Tigers through to Heineken final on penalties (sic) – yay!