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.)
Photo: Getty
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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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