As I write these words, England have declared on 575 for nine and Joe Root, the Yorkshireman who became old enough to vote only on the second-last day of 2008, has scored an unbeaten double century at Lord’s. I should have been there, but I have to file this column.
At which point I have a confession to make. I shall do so in a roundabout way. Imagine, if you will, the scene. It is Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Chiswick, many, many years ago, and an American woman is entering the final stages of labour. Outside in the corridor, her husband clips the end off his third Partagás in a row and, pausing only to give a passing hospital porter a thrashing with his malacca cane, considers his options should the resulting issue be a boy. He has only one firm idea: that he should be a member of Marylebone Cricket Club.
Cut to many years later. That child, now grown to full estate, his marriage and finances in ruins, living in circumstances only two phone calls away from utter destitution, awaits an envelope. It is March; to save money, he has turned off the heating in the Hovel he lives in. Wrapped in several layers of ancient jumpers and moth-eaten scarves, he reads an out-of-date copy of Metro by the light of a guttering candle, which he also uses to heat up the tin of Heinz lentil soup that constitutes his daily meal. He’d burn the piles of review copies of books that surround him in the grate if he were not living in a smoke-free zone of London.
Downstairs, the letter box clatters and he runs down as fast as his joints, now nearly completely seized up by lumbago, will let him. His hands, warmed only partly by his fingerless gloves, tremble as he picks the brown buff envelope from the floor. Most buff envelopes are harbingers of doom, but not this one. He has already checked the franking mark, palpated it, and felt the tell-tale resistance in one corner. It’s here! His last link to civilisation, to the life that was his birthright. His breath condenses in the freezing air as he sobs his gratitude. His new MCC membership card has arrived.
You know, you don’t get a lot of sympathy in some circles when you let on you’re an MCC member. I have a feeling that even coming up with the above, a slightly exaggerated version of the truth (MCC passes are actually posted in April), isn’t going to stop me from getting a certain amount of flak from sections of this magazine’s readership. My politics may place me firmly on the left of the Labour Party, but confess to owning an egg-and-bacon tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light. Which is funny, because it’s like a mirror image of what happens when you sit down in the smoking enclosure in front of the Pavilion at Lord’s with a copy of the Guardian and the latest New Statesman.
“Goodness me,” one of the adjacent members will say. “Is that the old Staggers? I didn’t realise it was still going.” They may then ask if they can have a look. I watch as he flicks through its pages. A slight empurpling of the features may follow.
“Do you really read this?”
“It gets worse,” I say. “I write for it.”
By the afternoon, after a few drinks have been taken, the mood tends to mellow, and once or twice I have even elicited a vague promise from my neighbour to give this magazine another go, because it’s much more fun than it was in 1923, which was when he last saw a copy.
But I do not care too much, because, as I have got older, I seem to love the game more and more, and in particular the long form of the game, with its easy pace, its relative courtliness; the very sound of it and the look of the whites against the green. Also, you can’t see the sponsors’ logos from where I sit; and, as I refuse to pay for Sky TV, and couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, this is the only way I can get to see live cricket. For a yearly outlay considerably less than that for a satellite or cable subscription, I can stroll into Lord’s for any game I like without buying a ticket. Last year, after a particularly glorious day, during which all cares, and there have been plenty of these, had disappeared, I found my eyes brimming with tears of happiness and gratitude. This is not an exaggeration.
“Do your colleagues ever give you stick for being an MCC member?” I was asked the other day.
“Sometimes,” I say. “But I tell them to go **** themselves.”