Paul Edwards visits Worcester and considers the changing scene
Sometime in 1942 or 1943 a poem written by a policeman was sent in to a leading literary magazine by one of his friends. To the author's astonishment, the poem was published. This, though, was no ordinary policeman. Already a man of wide literary interests, he spent much of his free time watching county cricket and his poem had been written to fill a gap in an anthology of topographical English verse which he was co-editing. In 1945 he left the force for a job as a Literary Programmes Producer in the BBC's Overseas Department and, before long, his distinctive voice was widely recognised throughout England as his career in broadcasting blossomed.
It perhaps says something about the transience of fame that John Arlott's name now requires a little introduction. In his day, which lasted from the early 1947 until his final Test broadcast in 1980, he was renowned as "the voice of cricket" and that rich, humane voice was one of the most imitated in England. This December 14th will mark the twentieth anniversary of his death. Arlott was a Hampshireman to his marrow and one of last year's tales from the Rose Bowl focused on a still much treasured conversation with Leo Harrison, one of the great man's lifelong friends; except, of course, that Arlott himself would have rejected any idea that he was a "great" man, preferring instead to be known simply as a decent human being.
My reason for returning to John Arlott's career is that Lancashire are playing Worcestershire this week and that poem sent to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon, was entitled Cricket at Worcester, 1938. It has been much anthologised and most devotees of the game will have a copy or eight lurking somewhere on their bookshelves.
One of the poem's great strengths is that it precisely captures the place in its time. The appendage of the date is very deliberate. It helps the reader to have a picture of an English county town in high summer in the year prior to the outbreak of war. The cricket is central, of course: "Sunburned fieldsmen, flannelled cream,/Looked, though urgent, scarce alive,/Swooped, like swallows of a dream,/On skimming fly, the hard-hit drive." Yet where the cricket is played matters too: "The back-cloth, setting off the setting,/Peter's cathedral soared,/Rich of shade and fine of fretting/Like cut and painted board."
Worcester has changed since Arlott wrote his poem, yet the word "timeless" is often applied to it, especially in April, when large photographs of "that view" of the cathedral fill broadsheets which salute the opening of the season, only to neglect the county game until football has done its worst. In 1938 Arlott could see "huddled houses, bent and slim," yet now he would see only the trees which obscure all but the tower and parts of the nave from most vantage points in the ground.
Nowhere is timeless. Even the great mountains and gorges of the world undego change, albeit, in the most literal sense, glacially slowly. Worcester, constantly threatened by floods from the Teme and the Severn, now has a raised pavilion marking the achievement of Graeme Hick and a new stand saluting the career of Basil D'Oliveira, whom Arlott helped to realise his ambition of playing cricket in England. Other stands commemorate the careers of Don Kenyon, Reg Perks and the Fosters.
Yet it does not seem to me that the very heart of the place has been lost. What poems like Cricket at Worcester, 1938 do is help us to see what it was like to watch cricket here in the last whole pre-war summer and to link the two images. We do not cheat time, but we do open the years wide.
Worcester is, as I said on Monday, a beautiful cricket ground. It is more than a picture on the lid of a biscuit-tin or a hackneyed image of the English game. John Arlott's understanding of the nature of change in English cricket is not the least reason why we should continue to read him. He was a broadcaster who helped us to see; he remains a writer who encourages us to look again.
Photo (c) David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Article (c) Lancashire county Cricket Club