From Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That:
24 June, 1915, Versailles. This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers v. sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, 24; the bat was a bit of a rafter, the ball a piece of rag tied with string; and the wicket a parrot-cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. Machine gun fire broke up the match.
I read the Graves at school, but I’d forgotten that little gem. I found it in A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley, a book which I’m finding more entertaining than the slightly dry title would suggest. It would also make an excellent choice for the list of books to explain England, since all the social changes of the past 250 years have been reflected in the development of cricket. The class system is especially well represented. Although it does contain an awful lot of cricket anecdotes which might be a bit impenetrable to our notional foreigner.
Thinking about Englishness lead me to re-read My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin, who was the KGB handler of the Cambridge Five. It really is the most extraordinary story. Having started with an Englishman playing cricket behind the lines in WWI, let’s end with another posh chap maintaining his Englishness in difficult circumstances:
I know that Philby didn’t much care for the character in The Human Factor who is supposed to be modelled on him, a whining fool who ekes out his days in a Moscow hovel. His own circumstances were totally different, what with his huge apartment, his magnificent view, the copies of The Times, Le Monde and the Herald Tribune to which he had subscribed, the videotapes of cricket test matches and the pots of Cooper’s Oxford marmalade sent from London.
We really are caricatures of ourselves sometimes.