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19 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:37am

Michael Henderson’s Diary: Rebranding cricket, resurrecting Ravel, and what Philip Larkin understood about England

When this plague is over I shall return to my sacred place: Derbyshire, our most handsome and underrated county. 

By Michael Henderson

They are playing cricket on the meadows of England, and soon we peculiar folk who colour our summers white on green will be permitted to join them. It is different this year, as we have been instructed to greet “the Hundred”, a competition of 100 balls an innings created for the benefit of families and teenagers, particularly targeting those from south Asian backgrounds.

Open the game up to new audiences by all means, but the abandonment of cricket’s common law bears the stamp of people ashamed of their inheritance. The new “franchises” represent cities rather than counties, and even the poor old six-ball “over” has been diminished. The whole squalid enterprise is a repudiation of a beautiful history that clearly embarrasses the England and Wales Cricket Board, and although it cannot succeed as sport the Hundred will not be allowed to fail.

“Excuses that make them all needs” was Philip Larkin’s ringing phrase in a poem that supplies the title of my book That Will Be England Gone, which takes the adulteration of our summer sport as its melancholy root note. Although it is no state of the nation book, it considers aspects of Englishness – and if you enjoy poetry, music and landscape as well as cricket, you may find something of value.

[See also: Moeen Ali’s journey to the margins shows English cricket still struggles with difference]

Ay up, me duck

Released from the servitude of an international plague, we shall return to our sacred places. In my case that means Lincoln Cathedral, Chipping Campden, Buttermere, Glyndebourne and Trent Bridge. It also means Derbyshire, our most handsome county, and the most underrated. Neither red nor blue, neither north nor south, it resists ownership.

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If Labour wants to regain the trust of non-zealots, then its city-dwelling supporters need to pass “the Derbyshire test”. Here’s a suggestion. On the A515, between Ashbourne and Buxton, there is a view sweeping west across the Staffordshire moor- lands, and east towards Bakewell. Unchanged in a thousand years, this landscape recalls TS Eliot’s line from “Little Gidding”: “History is now and England.” Drop a charabanc of metropolitans along that stretch, and ask them to describe what they see. Should they remain unmoved, let them walk back to Camden. If you don’t get Derbyshire, you won’t understand England.


Robust Raven

Reading Proust 17 summers ago (in Derbyshire) was a joy. For three months it felt like living in a dream. Yet dreams evaporate, and so it proved when I went back to Marcel’s big book. His evocation of childhood remains magical but some characters try your patience, and those ample sentences do not always sparkle. Allan Massie is right. Proust should be revisited randomly, 30 pages at a time.

What fun to plunge into the restorative waters of another roman-fleuve. Simon Raven, we are often told, had the pen of an angel and the mind of a cad. The ten novels which make up Alms for Oblivion show how angelic, and how defiantly caddish. This is not “literature” as it is defined by the supposedly learned. It’s something more precious: superb writing. “The world is more Raven-shaped than [Anthony] Powell-shaped,” Stephen Fry once told me. He’s right. Raven would set any table on a roar, which is why the tenured quacks beat him away with their compound adjectives – “postmodern” and the like. He doesn’t belong on the approved list. In the long run that is the greatest boon a writer can have.

[See also: Roy Dennis’s Restoring the Wild chronicles 60 years of rewilding Britain]

Ravel redux

There was no swizz in going back to Maurice Ravel, whose music inhabits a realm where ugliness is forbidden. Sometimes he seems the most enchanting composer of all. But, in a world of rampant identity, enforced daily by the unforgiving, he is unfashionable. Ravel “appropriated” styles from other traditions, “checked his privilege” so loosely he rarely stirred before noon, and venerated the high French culture which nurtured him, so we can expect denunciation by the mob any day now. One might argue that in his lifetime, 1875 to 1937, Paris gave more to the world than almost any society except Elizabethan England and Quattrocento Florence. Or is that another example of white supremacism?

Somewhere becoming rain

“Pass it on,” Hector tells his pupils at the end of The History Boys. “That’s the game I want you to learn.” On my desk is a hardback of The Whitsun Weddings that belonged to Nora Nicholson, who acted in Alan Bennett’s first play, Forty Years On. It was a gift from the playwright, whose inscription reads: “I hope you like these poems: they are what I wanted the play to be – very English and full of affection and dissatisfaction.”

Leonard Bernstein, who thought Larkin was the greatest poet of the last century, committed the title poem to memory. So, as I know from experience, did Harold Pinter. Christopher Hitchens, in his final weeks, asked Ian McEwan to read it to him, and explain the cultural references to his American son. Recently, I passed it on to Anne Dodd, widow of the incomparable comedian, who offered it to friends, word perfect. “Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet…” If your eyes do not prick, perhaps you should join those grumps shuffling back to NW1.

Larkin is the genius loci of my book, and (along with Schubert, Sibelius and Chekhov) one of the supreme presences in my life. Each year his poetry ripens “like a spring-woken tree”, and The Whitsun Weddings is his masterpiece; ours, too, as it reveals a writer who got England, in “blent” tones of affection and dissatisfaction. Grey Gowrie, paying generous tribute, wrote that Larkin detested modernists, yet “he hit us all over the field”. He always will.

“That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket” is published by Constable

[See also: Gaston Fébus and the thrills of the chase]

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy