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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 May 2024

Musing on cricket, Malcolm Guite is struck by the richness of English history

I AM back in Blighty, as the tommies used to say, and happy to be home. Having told us that “we shall not cease from exploration,” T. S. Eliot rightly says that the end of all our exploring “Will to be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

All my returns to England feel like that: like a rediscovery of what has been taken for granted. After the steel and glass, the high-rise buildings and the concrete flyovers of Dallas, a city that seems no sooner to have built something than to tear it down again and build something new, I look with joy on the medieval Church of St Nicholas, and on the 16th-century market cross in North Walsham; and even my own little Edwardian semi seems to have something of ancientry clinging to it. There is something salutary, perhaps even chastening, or at least prompting to a proper humility, to live in a house that has already lasted longer than one will ever live.

My sense of time in America is influenced by the dominance of the automobile and the freeway: time becomes something that is always whizzing past or carrying one headlong to some unknown destination. But my sense of time in England feels more like the gradual accumulation of layer upon layer of richness and meaning, piling up, year upon year, over the same place. I somehow feel that all that is past in one place, in any plot of land — even in my own little garden — is richly available to me.

Perhaps that’s why local history, the long history of particular places, is so compelling. To decompress from air travel and jet lag and ease myself back into England, I have just been listening to the first of the historian Tom Holland’s podcasts on the history of one of England’s great cricket grounds: the Oval.

It holds a personal memory for me; for, back in the 1970s, my father took me to see my first ever test match there. I loved everything about it: the excitement of the day out, the presence of a crowd gathering with rising expectation, all intent on one thing: the match itself, with the lightning excitement of each ball played, set within the longer and more leisurely rhythm of overs and innings. But what I most remember, looking back, what set the day apart, was that for the entire day I saw my father completely happy.

He was a very conscientious man who carried many burdens, but, for the whole of that day, he was happy and relaxed, absorbed in the game and in the pleasure of sharing it with me. But now, thanks to a wonderful account of local history, I can set my own particular memory of one day into the many layers of the Oval story.

Holland took us back, took us down far deeper through the layers than just the first cricket first played on the common there in the early 18th century. He took us right back, and right down to the Anglo-Saxon layers of our history, before the Norman Conquest when Kennington was Cynning ton: the King’s estate; back to the palace that stood there, and then, post-Conquest, to the time when Kennington was given to the first Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, whose emblem of three ostrich feathers still adorns the shield of the Surrey County Cricket Club. Then he took us on to the preservation of the common from the depredations of enclosure, and the great gathering there of the Chartists in 1848, to call for rights that they were denied and that we now take for granted. All that summoned up for us, before Holland has even come to the history of the club itself!

It is one thing to watch a century made at the Oval — a thrill I shared with my father — but it is another to revel in the richness of history, in all the many centuries layered over one ground before ever the willow struck the leather.

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