Every dog has his day, or, in this instance, evening.
Some months ago, I was commissioned to review 2022’s cricket books for the 2023 Wisden. This meant, in practice, going through a stack of about 100 books, picking around 20 of them, and writing them up in 5,000 words or so. The rate for the wordcount was very much at the lower end of the freelance scale; factor in the time spent reading the books and we begin to approach the concept of negative payment. But I didn’t care: this is Wisden, for crying out loud, the cricketing bible. It was and remains the single most prestigious commission of my professional life.
This comes out in spring every year; my father would buy me one for my birthday, starting in 1974 until his death. Its jacket is yellow, like a daffodil, and its disinterment of the previous year’s cricket matches always feels like a renewal, as the new season kicks into life.
And another bonus, apart from the deep inner glow of satisfaction: all contributors are invited to a fancy dinner, at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Now I am no stranger to Lord’s: my father put me down at birth for membership, which came through after about 40 years. The result is that for an eye-watering sum, paid at the beginning of the year, I can get to see any match at the ground I like (barring one-day World Cup matches), and sit anywhere I like, any time I like. Ticket costs are astronomical so membership pays for itself if you go more than four or five times a year.
The Holy of Holies is, of course, the Lord’s Pavilion, and although you can wear pretty much anything you like in the rest of the ground, in the Pavilion you have to wear a jacket, a tie, trousers that are not jeans, and shoes that are not sneakers/trainers/that kind of thing. The Pavilion is guarded by white-jacketed stewards, and woe betide you if you fall foul of them, or the dress code, because their vigilance and authority are supreme. All Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members learn very quickly to treat them with respect, in the way junior officers learn to defer to their non-commissioned officers. And also cf Oxbridge college porters and students, both undergraduate and graduate. It is one of the oddities of the British class system that is very hard to explain to anyone else in the world.
Anyway, Lord’s has shibboleths the way some houses have mice, and it is well to learn them. I’ve been an MCC member for 20 years so know the drill. In my early days they did not know that there were such things as black jeans; they are wise to that now, and I was once frogmarched out of the ground for trying to enter the Pavilion for a backgammon tournament while wearing them.
So, on the evening of the Wisden dinner I arrive early, and have a little stroll around the place having a quiet cigarette. I see another guest arriving. He is in black tie. “Oh dear,” I think to myself. “Someone has rather overdressed for the occasion.” I am wearing a cream jacket, trousers that are almost the same colour, and my MCC tie, a striking design in red and yellow unofficially called “bacon and egg”.
Other guests began to arrive. They, too, were in black tie. “Is everyone overdressing for this dinner?” I asked myself.
The truth eventually dawned on me when the other 199 guests arrived, at least 80 per cent of them male, and the women in superb and stylish dresses, mostly dark hued. I was standing out like a drag queen in a monastery. My only comfort was my tie: for I doubt I could have been thrown out for wearing it at Lord’s itself.
It was all rather awkward. Like many people who fancy themselves as non-conformists, I sometimes find conforming in social situations to be amusing, and on the few occasions I have been to black tie gigs I have looked on those who flout the rules as attention-seekers. On this occasion the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to myself. And when you’re on a budget of £10 a day, and have blown £20 of that on a train ticket, the other last thing you want to do is miss out on a free dinner.
In the end, of course, there was no problem. The caterers gave me enough wine to cover up my embarrassment, and no one was rude enough to raise an eyebrow; it occurred to me that if I’d been wearing black trousers, I would have been mistaken for a steward. I’d have had fun with that. But I got to meet Mike Brearley, and my only regret is my father is not around for me to have told him about the evening. He’d have liked that.
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age