Clotted cream, cooing pigeons, vengeful croquet – I’m living the English summer dream

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, I am enjoying a pot of Assam and a scone heaped with jam and clotted cream, on the terrace of the tearooms at Hidcote Manor Garden, Glos, and, as so many men in similar situations do, idly and with no serious intent whatsoever, I’m checking out the talent.

It’s a Monday afternoon, so we have a mainly senior set of visitors around us. It occurs to me, with a mild shock, that apart from the Beloved, her twin sister and her paramour, I am by some measure the youngest person here, if you don’t count the staff. (The man at reception was older than me, though, and had a manner about him that strongly reminded me of Pickles, the louche long-haired posho who used to prop up the bar of the Coach and Horses and deliver withering verdicts on your personality in exchange for the odd drink. Could they be the same person? The receptionist at Hidcote is far nicer but still has a way of talking that makes you feel as though you are sitting in the cheap seats and have been caught picking your nose. The Americans buying tickets are positively writhing in pleasure.)

This new-found youthful feeling is rather pleasing, if a little unsettling. The only time I could ever imagine being the youngest person in a place would be if I stood in a graveyard, and even then it would be touch and go. And yet here I am. Relatively young. But not as young as the B and her sis, even though today they are officially a year older, as today is their birthday. Quite a few years – enough to insert a young person of voting age – separate the B and I but circumstances have contrived to make her seem as though she has come from an earlier stage of British history. Growing up in a household too poor to afford a TV, she and her sisters had to learn to make their own entertainment. I always suspected that the notion of doing without telly and “making your own entertainment” was bogus and intended to make people my age feel guilty about watching Wacky Races but it turns out it wasn’t bogus at all, and when I’m with the B it can feel like I’ve been catapulted back to the 1930s. Not only can they all play about five musical instruments each, some of them pretty arcane ones too, they are expert and inspired at making up games, and on the train to Banbury, where we are to be met, my book is confiscated and I am commanded to give the B my full attention.

The first game is Hangman, by way of easing me into the whole concept of mutual conviviality. There is a small boy sitting next to us who starts taking an interest and offers “danger” as a suggestion to the word I am thinking of, but when the B works out that the word’s first letter is a W and its fourth is a K, she confiscates the piece of paper and we move on.

“Guess which one of the colours in Joseph’s Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat I’m thinking of,” she says. “How will I know you’re not fibbing?” I ask, although this is the least of my worries, as I have not seen the musical since my children’s primary school forced an audience of stunned and disbelieving parents to endure a loose performance of this work about ten years ago, and not all of us were giving it our full attention. She scribbles a word down on a piece of paper and hides it, and after about 20 minutes, and several clues, in which I name every gaudy colour I can think of, I correctly give the answer “ruby”.

But then we have a pub lunch and pétanque and then off to the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor. “Are you Trust members?” asks the man who looks like Pickles. “No,” says the B’s sister, “but our mum’s on the cover of your leaflet” – and fuck my old boots but there she is, along with the B’s older sister and her husband, busy admiring some lupins. I have landed, it would seem, bang in the middle of the most English family in the world. Being technically only a quarter English myself, I find this extraordinarily thrilling.

We enjoy a delightfully rancourous and vengeful few games of croquet on the massive lawn (to play the game croquet properly, it is important to suspend every generous and sporting impulse you have). I retire to smoke a crafty jazz cigarette under a massive pine and watch the others race around in improvised croquet-related games while the sun blazes down. The wood-pigeons coo in the trees; we virtually have the place to ourselves. After a while I beckon the B over and whisper in her ear. “Sorry to bother you,” I murmur, “but isn’t heaven meant to be rather like this?”

A woman playing croquet, 1930. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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