Why I love the Ashes

It's the age-old rivalry that makes matches like this weekend's Test so thrilling to watch.

It was at The Oval in 1882 that Australia claimed their first victory over England in cricket. An obituary was posted in The Sporting Times claiming that English cricket had died and its ashes would be taken (very very slowly) to Australia. The English media, gawdlove'm, dubbed the return series down under "the quest to regain The Ashes". Add to this the macabre gift of a tiny terracotta urn from some over-enthusiastic Melbourne ladies to the England captain and you've got yourself a rivalry to last the ages. Some one hundred and thirty years and sixty-six series later, Australia are leading by just thirty-one wins to England's thirty. It's still all to play for!

Perhaps after losing the 1882/83 series, the Aussie captain WL Murdoch said, "best of three" to the Hon IFW Bligh and it just carried on from there, the ante being upped every so often. There's probably a 1930's beermat somewhere with a drunken agreement scrawled on it, "the first team to twenty has its shoes shined by the opposition for a whole week," signed Hammond and Bradman. Where does it end? Or as my girlfriend asks, "what's it all for?" To which I reply incredulously, "who cares!"

I've heard it said of football, "it's not a matter of life and death - it's more important than that". Well, it's not actually, and nor is cricket. But it is a jolly nice way to pass the time, in between properly important stuff like death and shoe-polishing. And what makes it even more pleasurable is taking it far too seriously. That, and ridiculing your adversaries . . .

The English like to focus on how supposedly crass and uncultured Australians are (even the venerable David Gower was at it recently), and on how their strength and fitness is just the natural outcome of a more conducive climate. What they really want to say is: how come the convicts ended up with all the barbecues and surfing, when we (who didn't steal any loaves of bread) are stuck here digging our cars out of snow-drifts?

The Aussies have a fabulous pantomime contempt for the English. "Aw listen mate, the Poms are just a bunch of whinging big girls blouses who can't hold their beer or successfully satisfy their wives. No wonder they can't play cricket". The fact that England have won three of the last four series and look like winning the next two is but a small grey cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky of their innate superiority.

It is the original love-hate relationship, and both tribes play up to the caricature that the other side expects of them. Remember Jeff Thompson joyously provoking a crisis in Bumble's Balkans? Ted Dexter insisting he was unaware of any errors he had made after England went down 4-0 in '89? Merv Hughes snarling at Gooch, "I'll get you a piano - see if you can play that"? Or Johnny Douglas describing his 1921 England team as a "damnable side of picnickers"? (No, nor do I.) All the way up to Warner and Root's minor misunderstanding in the Walkabout the other week. It's all part of the fun.

Yet again, the cricket is of the highest calibre, but what makes these matches really unmissable is the pleasantly crackling undercurrent of mutual antipathy/undying admiration. Australia will not go down without a fight. It's not in their nature; their fabulous, insanely competitive, massively over-generalised nature. England should win, and despite getting off to a good start will no doubt do their very best to lose, always preferring the plucky underdog as they do. Whatever happens it means two months of sitting on the sofa, drinking posh alcopops and listening to the inspired ramblings of Bumble, Blowers, Beefy, Warney, Aggers and Athers. Life is sweet!

Neil Hannon is one half of The Duckworth Lewis Method. Their new album, Sticky Wickets (Divine Comedy Records), is out now

England celebrate victory in the first Ashes test on 14 July. (Photo: Getty.)
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism