From Utopia to Atopia : Milton Keynes and Magna Park

 

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“What is missing in the American landscape is not so much the absence of historical memories, as the romantic illusion has it, as the fact that no hand has left a trace in it. This relates not merely to the absence of farm-fields, the stubbly and often tiny scrub-like forests, but above all the streets. … They bear no imprint. Because they know no traces of shoes or wheels, no gentle footpaths along their edge as a transition to the vegetation, no side-paths into the valley below, they lack that which is mild, softened, rounded in things, on which hands or their immediate tools have worked. It is as if no-one had combed the landscape’s hair. It is disconsolate and inconsolable. This corresponds to the manner of its perception. For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car cannot be retained, and the latter sinks as tracklessly, as the traces on such fade away.” *

Two popular attitudes to Milton Keynes are to treat it as a joke, or to applaud the “utopian” “idealism” of those who planned and built it. The former camp imagines it to be inauthentic and soulless, deriding its “concrete cows” and its “plastic” football team, guilty of identity-theft from another, more authentic club ; some still, perversely, associate it with “Thatcherism”, largely on the basis of a couple of once all-pervasive TV adverts and a song by the Style Council. The other faction remembers it as a late flowering of “herbivorous” post-war thinking, a sincere attempt to harness modernism to provide a cleaner, more pleasant way of life (in the tradition of the garden city movement), with a herbal-scented whiff of hippy mysticism. Some of these (particularly those who live there) are fiercely defensive of the purity of the original concept against compromise, as if fearful that their “city” will become what its detractors imagine it to be.

My only previous experience of Milton Keynes involved being driven around it at night (in the pre-satnav era), and getting hopelessly lost. In theory, looking at the grid plan around which the “city” is based,

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that should be hard to do, the intention being that you should drive in at one side of the “city” and proceed in a straight line through to the other. This might be true if you have understood the principle behind the arrangement of streets and are happy to have your movements dictated by the logic of the grid, or, perhaps, if you have lived there long enough for landmarks (even individual roundabouts or trees) to have lodged in your mind. If not, then like many things that are logical, the arrangement feels counter-intuitive (in fact, willfully anti-intuitive), the effect disorientating, as if you were an animal (a spider, a cat) climbing a sheer wall made of some man-made substance that offers no natural purchase.

One of the first things I saw, having arrived in Central Milton Keynes by bus, was a sign confirming my prejudice (as a non-driver) that it does not aim to be hospitable to the aimless stroller :

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drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all have their allotted spheres here, their predestined routes, and the walker’s realm lies through a web of underpasses.

The shopping centre itself (there are, in fact, two a little way apart) is also arranged in a kind of grid of alphabetically labelled blocks, with exits at regular intervals between them.  There is no hierarchy between these exits (no main entrance or exit), few of them give any indication where they lead, there are few landmarks other than shops and few maps ; our stroller** soon loses his bearings, becomes disorientated and finds himself with no idea where he is in relation to where he came in, or whether he has passed the same place twice (for reference, the exit nearest the bus-stop from Northampton is the one closest to Burger King).

Once outside the shopping centre, the impression is of endless straight lines : walkways, “boulevards”, flyovers, underpasses, dual carriageways, all of which seem to lead straight to the vanishing point of the horizon, as if a child has drawn them to demonstrate their grasp of perspective :

It is so unlike anywhere else (the patchwork tracings of civic and private needs and desires that make up the mind-map of the average English town) that the mind gropes to relate these “boulevards” to constructs of the imagination, such as “Huysmann’s Paris”or “Chandler’s Los Angeles” or the ideal fantasy cities of Le Corbusier.  Everywhere our stroller has the sense that behind it all there is some central controlling consciousness, that it is, as it were, a product of intelligent design, and that there is – if only we could see it – a plan.

In Milton Keynes two idealisms rub against each other : the desire to give concrete expression to a world of ideal forms struggles with the need to provide a benign habitat for its human inhabitants. Central Milton Keynes is not designed to be inhabited, but used purely as a zone of consumption (of fancy goods and burgers in the shopping centre, of “culture” in the cultural quarter, of religion in the ecumenical “cathedral” that embodies the modern belief that emptiness is next to holiness), but it has, nevertheless, attracted inhabitants, hardy life-forms rolled in sleeping bags under every underpass, taking tenuous root in routes which were meant for perpetual motion ; in shanty towns, on the fringes, fringe religions take hold

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and everywhere, mucking up utopia, are the traces of habitation – fag ends, cartons, cracks in the pavement, weeds, detritus, vomit, scribble.

The place that I was reminded of most was Magna Park, a 550 acre distribution centre in South Leicestershire, which is its doppelgänger or twin, a denial of one of its kinds of idealism and the fulfilment of the other. Milton Keynes is inviting to visitors (“Come to Milton Keynes”), Magna Park discourages them (it describes itself as a “private estate”, and I was unsure, when I visited it, whether I was meant to be there at all). The architecture of Central Milton Keynes is meant to be seen (the main shopping centre has been listed by English Heritage) ; that of Magna Park is not designed to be seen (it is assumed that there should be no-one there to see it), but to be invisible (the only attempt at design of the vast, windowless sheds is that some are painted sky-blue, to make them, from a distance, blend in with the sky).

There is no philanthropic idealism behind Magna Park, no thought of better lives ; it represents pure functionality, and, in that, represents the fulfilment of long nurtured dreams.

In the hour-and-a-half I spent in Magna Park I saw three other human beings (one a security guard and one in a high-visibility jacket, spraying luminous hieroglyphics on the pavement). No-one lives there, and there are none of the amenities that inhabitants require (no shops, no pubs, no cafes ; no playgrounds, no lavatories, no homes or homeless ; no production and no consumption ; no libraries or churches (so no religion too – it’s easy if you try)).  But it is, in many ways, an ideal place to live. Like Milton Keynes, it has wide, tree-lined boulevards arranged, logically, around a grid.

It has excellent public transport links, with three bus stops and a half hourly service to both Hinckley and Lutterworth. It has its own secluded wood, with a willow-fringed pond, that gives the impression that yours are the first human feet to tread there :

Above all, there is no trace of human habitation : apart from a defiant scattering of fag-ends around one of the bus stops, there is no litter ; there are no cracks in the pavement, no moss between the paving stones, the hedges are precisely and immaculately trimmed, there are no dogs, no children, no chewing gum, no sound of human voices, no laughter or crying (and weirdly, when I visited it, no birds). It is almost pre-lapsarian in its pristine perfection.

Although they are invisible in their big sheds, there are said to be 7,500 workers in Magna Park, but the dream is, of course, that automation will soon enable their elimination. If the same principle that drives the driverless cars which are being trialled on the wide, straight boulevards of Milton Keynes can be extended to the caravans of lorries that connect it to Magna Park, the last traces of humanity there could be eradicated, leaving it a heavenly, immaculate place, where no-one goes and which no-one ever sees, both Utopia and atopia.

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*Theodor Adorno – Minima Moralia.

**Me.

 

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Faced with Porphiry

Luton Airport Parkway to Harpenden: a walk with Nicholas Faxton.

For a long time, not long ago (from February 2002 to March 2016), I used to wake early. I would leave the house at 6.30 and, by 7.40 approximately, I would be passing through Luton Airport Parkway railway station. In the afternoon, I would leave work early, and, by 5.40 approximately, I would be approaching the same station from the other direction. As I say, I did this every day, five days a week (barring holidays), for a little over fourteen years.

By being in the same place at the same time over such a long period of time (something that would, otherwise, only be experienced by a participant in a scientific experiment, or an art project of some kind), I could observe the landscape changing, in two ways. On the one hand, there were temporal, lateral changes : new buildings were built, old ones demolished, towns sprawled ; crops would rotate in their fields ; supermarkets changed hands, and their neon signs changed with them. Early on, a landfill site was gouged out from a patch of scrubland, festered and flared for some years in the early light, then slowly grassed over, leaving only a scattering of gas-relieving periscopes to warn of the space it had once occupied.

On the other hand, there were cyclical changes : I developed a minutely calibrated sensitivity to the light blooming, then shrinking and contracting again, until, at its lowest point (the Scandinavian months from November to January), the first point in the journey where I could see the outside world more clearly than my own reflection was the landscape immediately beyond Luton Airport Parkway ; it seemed to me unusually beautiful, even the shimmering pools and shining cupolas (or so they appeared in the subdued dawn light) of what was clearly a sewage farm.

Any sight (it is true) would have seemed sweeter to me than, and a relief from, the darkness visible in my reflection, and it is perhaps this, or a simple lack of curiosity, that prevented me from looking into what it was it was that I could see, and why that landscape, with its wooded slopes, its picturesque lakes, and the briefly glimpsed facade of a great house, seemed too good to be true, too true to nature.

About six or seven years into my making this journey, I discovered that the house I could see was called Luton Hoo, and that its grounds, rather than being a happy accident of nature, had been landscaped by Capability Brown. The house itself had been, in the course of several fires, through various iterations, designed first by Robert Adam, then by Robert Smirke. It had been owned by the Earls and Marquesses of Bute, “a Liverpool solicitor” and Sir Julius Wernher, an Edwardian diamond magnate. By the time it had occurred to me to visit the house, which apparently contained an art collection, that was no longer possible, it having been converted into an hotel in 2007.

A little earlier, I had become aware of a path that ran parallel to the railway line, seemingly a rough track. Sometimes there were cyclists, occasionally walkers, whose cloudy exhalations, on cold mornings, mimicked the steam rising from the sewage treatment beds. I could not see where they were travelling to, because the path passed from view as the train put on speed.  Shortly after the sewage farm, on the other, left hand, side of the track, I could see a path emerging from under a railway bridge, which led, in the middle distance, to a building which piqued my curiosity. Its purpose was not obvious, and, in its setting, between the sculpted contours of Capability Brown and the homely curves of arable Bedfordshire, it struck me as incongruous and unenglish (something Sicilian, a little Russian), without belonging to any more exotic style of architecture that I could readily identify.  Every morning (unless it was raining), I thought how much I should prefer to be walking that path to that building than continuing my journey to London.

Eventually (and you must remember here that the internet was not as informative in those days as it is now), I learned that the path was part of the Lea Valley Walk (which, in its later stages, and in a previous life of mine, I had lived near to and sometimes walked), that it followed the route of the old Luton to Hertford Railway, and that its second leg led from Luton Airport to Harpenden. It took me several more years before I found the time and the inclination to walk it, but have now done so three times, the first time in Autumn, the second in Spring, and the third in the last week of 2016.

Although the route is signposted at the exit to the station, my usual inclination to follow my nose (and my disinclination to walk alongside a dual carriageway) at first led me astray, but, after a few diversions, I emerged from an underpass

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directly underneath a nose-to-tail train of aeroplanes, in the moment that they had burst through to take-off and were accelerating to gain altitude.

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Having been on one of those planes some weeks previously, I felt the closed eyes, aching ears and surreptitious prayers ; I was relieved to be outside, on that path, perhaps the observed and not the observer.

I would say that, of the three seasons, the walk is at its best in Autumn (unfortunately, I appear to have lost the photographs I took of it on that occasion), but, on a clear and frosty morning, I caught it in its Winter best.

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It resembles other paths which once were railway lines, in terms of its flora and occasional fauna, albeit, in its early stages, unusually well-stocked with mature trees (responsible, I suppose, for making its beginnings invisible from the train).

Curiously, by some trick of perspective, or by design, Luton Hoo itself cannot be seen from the path, only its grounds.

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At one point, there is a bench before which three spirits of the Lea Valley loom to obstruct the view.

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The figure on the left is Eric Morecambe, on the right is the founder of the Luton Sea Scouts (who apparently make use of the artificial lakes of Luton Hoo), and, in the middle, is Capability Brown himself.

For about half an hour the path and the railway proceed side-by-side, until, like two friends falling out on a walk, the path veers away to the right over a viaduct crossing the Lea itself, rounds the sewage farm (which is less attractive than it looks from the train), and, passing under a railway bridge, emerges at the beginning of the road that leads to the incongruous building (the path itself continues on to Harpenden).

The road, which has no footpath beside it, passes over the Lea, which, although the day had started brightly, was half-obscured by fog

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before leading me to what announced itself as St. Charalambos, a Greek Orthodox Church.

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If I had visited when I had first noticed it, I would have found an Anglican Church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, but that had been abandoned in 2008. Pevsner (I only know this because I have searched the internet) has this to say about it :

“1840-1 by Benjamin Ferrey. Neo-Norman. Facade has 2 large round Norman piers flanking the entrance, and open staircases with Norman colonettes turning left and right. Asymmetrically placed turret.”

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The church has a modest churchyard, containing a scattering of small monuments, most of them, apparently, to the inhabitants of the small village of East Hyde, or to those employed, in some way, at Luton Hoo (one of them in the shape of a heart).

 

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The churchyard slopes gently upwards to a precisely-trimmed wall of yew, through which is visible a monument of a type that I associate most with Highgate Cemetery (I lived nearby for some years, and used to stroll there when I had nothing else to do), whose proper name seems to be mausoleum  (the word that seems to suit is catafalque, but that is wrong).

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This mausoleum (or catafalque ) belongs to, commemorates, and, presumably (I have never been quite sure of the mechanics of such interments), houses the body of Sir Julius Wernher (as we have seen, the one-time master of Luton Hoo).

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The Mausolea and Monuments Trust describes it thus :

An exceptionally elaborate Gothic Revival monument.  The sarcophagus, which is faced with porphiry and supported by six bronze lions, is sheltered by a lavishly carved stone canopy.  The quality of both the materials and workmanship is of the very highest order.”

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At its corners stand four quasi-angelic figures, each representing what I take to be a virtue (though in some cases, the symbolism is obscure to me).

In addition to Sir Julius himself (whose mortal remains occupy, I imagine, the great lead sarcophagus (faced with porphiry) itself), there are smaller plaques to commemorate his family, as follows:

Alice Sedgwick, Baroness Ludlow, 1862-1945 (his wife)

Lady Zia Wernher, 1892-1977 (his daughter-in-law)

Major-General Sir Harold Wernher, 1895-1978 (his second son)

Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd baronet, 1889-1948 (his son and heir)

George Michael Alexander Wernher (only son of Sir Harold), died at Reja 4 December 1942 aged 24 and buried in a military cemetery in Tunisia

Alex Pigott Wernher (youngest son), died at Ginchy, France September 10, 1916

One plaque is blank.*

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Pharonically, within the enclosure of yew, but apart from the family, there are two smaller monuments, which read :

Harriet Sessions, 12 February 1934, for 39 years faithful housekeeper and friend of Sir Julius and Lady Wernher

Margaret : M. Eleanor Pryce, d. 29 June 1928, lifelong devoted friend of Julius and Lady Wernher

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There is also a very small monument, completely obscured by moss, which might have commemorated a dog.

Although, on my first visit, I knew nothing of Sir Julius or his family, I recall feeling that this unexpected enclosure of yew and its porphiry-faced casket, to which I had been drawn, seemed somehow to contain a compressed weight of history, set against the lightness of the English countryside (or, as I wrote in a notebook, rather cheaply “A little corner of an English field that is forever Mitteleuropa“).

By my second visit, I was able to flesh out the bones.  I understood the connection with Luton Hoo (which, I learned, had been decorated by the designer of the Ritz Hotel). I knew that Alice, his wife, (nee Mankiewicz) was nicknamed “Birdie”, was painted by Sargent and, after the death of Sir Julius, had remarried a Lord Ludlow.  Sir Derrick (the second baronet) had married Theodora Romanoff (an exiled Russian noblewoman, though not related to the Royal Family).  Sir Harold’s wife “Zia” was born Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, the daughter of an exiled Russian Grand-Duke (and grandson of a Tsar) who owned Kenwood House and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.  Tracing the web of family conections (by hopping from one Wikipedia page to another) soon spiralled vertiginously, back to Pushkin and forwards to a handful of Duchesses of Westminster, and other names, too numerous to mention, familiar from the society pages.

I picture Sir Julius selecting the spot where his mausoleum was to be built, fussing about its design, and riding out from Luton Hoo from time to time, (taking, I suppose, much the route I took), to see how the work was progressing (I am assuming it was built while he was alive), and, in time, a sad, grand, procession from the great house when it was time for him to take occupation of his chosen resting place. I picture, too, a succession of other sad processions taking the same route, in due course, to add new bodies (or, if not that, new inscriptions), and others, less sad, but still reflective, a short drive, or a pleasant walk on a Summer’s afternoon away to lay flowers or pay other respects. The mausoleum’s architecture echoes the mediaeval shrines that held relics of the saints, and seems calculated to invite pilgrimage. It is, of course, some time now since any descendant of Sir Julius has occupied Luton Hoo, and the number of those who can remember their occupation of the house, or most of those commemorated by the mausoleum, must be dwindling.  I wonder how many, other than me, have found themselves, impelled by some unknown instinct, making what feels as though it is, regardless of its object (I doubt Sir Julius, in life, was quite saintly), a pilgrimage of sorts, and how few of us could describe quite what drew us there, or what it might mean.

* From ‘The Camden New Journal’, 13 May, 2010 “An heiress to a vast diamond fortune who shunned her aristocratic family in favour of a quiet life in Highgate was found dead by a care­taker, an inquest heard.

Anna Wernher, daughter of Sir Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd Baronet, was found dead in her home in Langbourne Avenue on the Holly Lodge Estate in February. Described as a “recluse,” the inquest heard that she had cut all ties with her family, whose fortune was made by her grandfather Sir Julius Charles Wernher, 1st Baronet, in the diamond mines of South Africa. 

Alexander Wills, a close friend of Ms Wernher, said that she complained of feeling “very unwell” when he spoke to her three weeks before she was found.“It was par for the course because she was never feeling very well,” he said. “I didn’t take any particular notice and said to her ‘give me a ring when you’re feeling better and I’ll come and have some tea’.”  That was the last time Mr Wills spoke to Ms Wernher, who he described as “suspicious” of medical care. 

It is believed Ms Wernher will be buried in the family mausoleum in East Hyde, Bedfordshire.”

******************

After leaving the churchyard, I retraced my steps and rejoined the path that led to Harpenden, where I enjoyed a toasted bruschetta and a cup of caffe latte, before taking the train home, passing back through Luton Airport at about, I suppose, 3.40.

Time taken : 2 hours approximately.

Degree of difficulty : very slight.

 

 

Dreams of Leaving

From December 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

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For a few years after they were married, our parents managed a butcher’s shop, the end building of a deformed 1930s’ crescent of ten shops, a series of white concrete cubes with elongated windows, unornamented, geometrical, exiguous. California had come to the outskirts of Northampton, futuristically prefiguring the society of consumption. The building was redolent of absent sunshine, leisure and romance ; although it was not long before the rain seeped through the flat roofs and in fungoid green stains on the inside walls, and subsidence cracks veined the already maculated concrete with black, and the parents separated and returned to the familiar red brick terraces from which they had unsuccessfully tried to anticipate their future release.” (Jeremy Seabrook : The Everlasting Feast)

I think I remember reading, some time ago, that W.H. Auden had once described his ideal as being to live “a Mediterranean life in…

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A Midlands Romance

From November 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

 

ptdc0585-2“The only thing romantic in the Midlands is the names of the professional football clubs – and football, generally speaking, is not a romantic game …

The towns are, perhaps, not meant for summer, summer’s delights and summer’s games, and only when the fogs come down and blur their grim, unlovely lines and the street-lamps mingle with lights from stalls and shops to deck them out in a boisterous blaze do they become warm and human. 

Football is their proper game, and, seen in the lights of the trams as they sway over lines glittering in the December rain, the stop-press columns of the evening papers with their long lists of scores and results take on a mystic significance …”

Meet me on the corner when the lights are coming on and I’ll be there – I promise I’ll be there …”

Quotations from Dudley Carew (“To The Wicket”)…

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Transitory Things in Lamport

From February 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

 

Lamport trees

Lamport is a small village on the road between Market Harborough and Northampton, which I have often passed through, but never made time to visit until last week, prompted mainly by reading “A Child Alone : the Memoirs of ‘BB’“.  ‘BB’ was the pen-name of D.J. Watkins-Pitchford, a naturalist, artist and author whose books I enjoyed as a child and have sometimes alluded to in writing this blog.

Watkins-Pitchford grew up in the Rectory at Lamport (now, inevitably ‘The Old Rectory’)*

Lamport Rectory Lamport Rectory

which is next door to the church of which his father was the Rector.

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and directly opposite Lamport Hall, the family seat (until recently) of the Isham family.

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Lamport Hall

As young D.J. was an imaginative child and kept at home rather than sent to school, he would have had plenty of time to contemplate the motto of the Isham family, which is inscribed at least twice on…

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Forgive What We Have Been, Amend What We Are

From October 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Lincoln Cathedral.  It has its fans (Ruskin, Pevsner) but – magnificent though it is

it seemed to me to have an uneasy atmosphere, something that suggested it was not quite happy in its skin.

The Cathedral was rebuilt and greatly enlarged by St Hugh of Lincoln, the exemplary 12th century Bishop, who was canonized shortly after his death. The Cathedral invites visitors to imagine themselves as mediaeval pilgrims visiting his shrine.  It’s true that many pilgrims would have been attracted by Great St Hugh, but more would have  there to venerate this shrine (what’s left of it) – the shrine of Little St Hugh.

Little St Hugh was a nine-year old boy, the son of a woman called Beatrice, who disappeared from his home on July 31st 1255.  On 29th August his body was found in a well in the…

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Twilight of The Bones

From March 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

“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’.” G. Orwell – England, Your England

Since the football club that I support moved to a ground that is inaccessible by public transport, I have been spending my Saturday afternoons watching a mixture of sides in the United Counties League – Harborough, Desborough, the Rothwell Corinthians, but mostly Rothwell Town (“the Bones”).

But, as the sign above illustrates, it looks like I shall have one less option for next season – or, at least, if the club survives, they won’t be playing at their long-time home at Cecil Street.

The club was founded (as “The Swifts”) in 1895, and have spent time in the Northamptonshire League, the Leicestershire League and the Kettering League…

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Peace And Light In Long Eaton

From December 2011.

The Crimson Rambler

I recently satisfied a long-nursed curiosity by visiting Long Eaton.  I don’t know about you, but I find that, if I hear an announcement about where a stopping train is going to stop often enough, I develop a growing urge to visit that place : I hear about Long Eaton several times a day – “Passengers for Langley Mill, Alfreton, Long Eaton and Derby change at Beeston …”.

I wasn’t there for very long (I managed to combine this trip with a visit to that other faraway place with a strange-sounding name East Midlands Parkway) but long enough to get the gist of the place, as it were.

The main thing to note about Long Eaton is that it is very long.  One very long road running alongside a canal with houses strung out alongside it.  The walk from the station to the centre of town took about half an…

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Merrie Men and Mad Men

From February 2011. (I never did write about Pugin.)

The Crimson Rambler

Between Christmas and New Year I visited Peterborough – to see the Cathedral – and Nottingham – to see the British Art Show 7 (In the Days of the Comet), which I see has now transferred to London.  While in Nottingham, I also took the opportunity to visit Pugin’s Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Barnabas (about which more another time, perhaps).

On my way from the Cathedral to the Castle (where part of the Art Show was on display) I came across this along Maid Marian Way (which sounds delightful, but ain’t) –

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– the window of what seems to have been a mediaeval-themed “banqueting hall”, now closed down due to the recession.  These Brueghelian figures must, I think, have been used to create an atmosphere of Merrie Olde Englande for the revellers, but now look as though they are making a desperate effort to escape the ruins of the building (it reminds me…

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More than one way to “Be a Brit”*

From December 2015.

The New Crimson Rambler

As anyone who collects cricket books will know, the end of World War 2 brought a damburst of publications, as paper rationing ended and a full programme of cricket recommenced.  One of these, which I happened to pick up earlier this year, was Denzil Batchelor’s “The Game Goes On“, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1947.  We have met Batchelor before in the pages, attesting to C. B. Fry’s heroic levels of alcohol consumption during Tests and provoking Dudley Carew’s ire by reheating that old chestnut, the three division County Championship.

The first piece in the book is entitled ‘Why?’ (“watch cricket”, presumably – a question I often ask myself).  His answer begins

“To me the game I love best is something much more than a contest between athletes; something beyond even a physical fine art, a homespun latter-day equivalent of the Greek dance of the Golden Age.  When…

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