George Orwell admired what he called the privateness of English life. “We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans,” he wrote in 1940 during the German bombing raids on London. “All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.”
At present, social distancing and the lockdown have deprived us of much of the communal aspect of our lives – the pub, the football match, if not the back garden (we are also a nation of gardeners). Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially in spring, as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside even as we are told to stay inside “to save lives”. As a child, I cherished spring and early summer because it signalled the start of the cricket season. Back then you could watch cricket on terrestrial television and the murmur and slow, stately pace of Test matches as they unfolded on BBC Two provided the soundtrack, as well as the rhythm, to the long days of high summer when there was no school and not much else to distract us, certainly no internet or Xbox.
Perhaps as an act of displacement activity, I’ve been reading in recent days two books broadly about sport: Michael Henderson’s That Will Be England Gone and (in proof) Robert Colls’s This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England 1760-1960. Henderson’s book is an exercise in extended leave-taking. It is about cricket but also about much more: landscape, place, poetry, music, national mythology. The stories he tells are rooted in the shires, in an England of tea shops, second-hand bookshops, country pubs, county cricket grounds, old churches and concert halls. “Uniquely, cricket is shaped by forces of nature. The season starts in spring, a time of renewal, and ends in September, with conkers on the ground and woodsmoke in the air. It charts an emotional course from hope to melancholy.” This is the book’s authentic register, and it is haunted by loss – of the old ways and rituals of our summer game that Henderson believes is being destroyed by crass commercial opportunism.
“There can be no summer in England without cricket,” wrote Neville Cardus, and for Henderson the 2019 season was the last of its kind because of what was coming: the launch of the Hundred, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s 100-ball thrash to be contested not by counties but eight “franchises”. As a romantic conservative, Henderson despises this innovation. “From now on there will be high summer in England without county cricket,” he laments. And reflecting on Cardus’s observation, he says: “An English landscape without cricket on the green between April and September is inconceivable.”
This was written before coronavirus swept the land and it now seems prescient: here we are in May and no cricket is being played anywhere in England, and may not be for the rest of the summer.
When I began reading newspapers, I was struck by how well written the county cricket reports were. I particularly liked that the Guardian’s correspondents – Henderson was one – seemed to be rooted in the places about which they wrote. David Foot in the West Country, Paul Fitzpatrick in the north-west, Matthew Engel roaming widely but with a fondness for Northamptonshire, Frank Keating dropping by to reminisce about Gloucestershire. These writers were attempting, as Colls writes of our national games in a different context, to “catch the flavour and meaning of life on the ground”.
“The stories we tell, tell us who we are,” says a character in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck as adapted and reimagined by the brilliant writer-director Robert Icke. Both Henderson and Colls are interested in the stories we tell not just because they tell us who we are but because they are both searching for an answer to something deeper: what it means to belong as part of a national community at a time of profound change.
For Robert Colls, “Sport is a story the country tells itself but it is not the only one and not the most important one.” England has long been a nation in search of a unifying national story, never more so than during the dispiriting stand-off that followed the 2016 referendum. I’ve long been interested in whether we as Britons (rather than as English, Scots and Welsh) still share some underlying common experience. Do we still have a national story and if not, does it even matter as we stumble towards a new post-Brexit identity: simultaneously seeking to be more and less open to the world?
There’s no question the present crisis will change us. In a recent interview in the Times, Simon Henderson, the headmaster of Eton, warned that a period of fractious politics could follow. But, he added, “I also hope we will have realised that what we really value as a society is compassion, community and civic responsibility. Many of those who work in the lowest-paid roles are in fact the key to our survival, and these people who have been undervalued for so long have shown astonishing dedication when we have needed them the most. That can’t just be forgotten.”
It won’t be easy to hold on to our renewed sense of social solidarity, but we must try if we are ever to reach out across difference and break through the empathy walls that have constrained and separated us for too long.
This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain