Original Instruments

Normally it is the end of a year that for some reason sees an accelerating procession of obituaries. The conjunction doesn’t seem inappropriate: people bow out once the trees are bare and the afternoons darkening. But since Christmas, and into a new year that is meant to proclaim optimism and fresh starts, it has been one goodbye after another – I’m talking about music still. First Lemmy, on Boxing Day, followed by Bowie, but then the Specials drummer, the Mott the Hoople drummer, Glen Frey of the Eagles, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, George Martin…

In classical music the departures have come just as fast: Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Kurt Masur and, also last month, another living legend of a conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In most cases, including Harnoncourt’s, it may have been just old age, but it’s still our past that’s dying, from the making of the Beatles to, in the life of Kurt Masur, one man’s experience that spanned conscription into the German military to fight in Holland during the last war; building the magnificent new Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig for one of the world’s greatest orchestras – including using his NATO contacts in the West to secure state-of-the-art circuitry unavailable in Communist East Germany for its mixing desk; opening the doors of that concert hall in 1989 when the military police turned on the pro-democracy demonstrations that would lead to the Berlin Wall coming down, to provide sanctuary for the protestors; and conducting the New York Philharmonic in Central Park after 9/11.  

I saw Nikolaus Harnoncourt just once, in 2012, on what would turn out to be his last appearance in London, conducting what his Guardian obituary accurately describes as a “serene and moving performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis”. A dignified, imposing man – according to the Guardian he “was descended from various Holy Roman emperors and other European royalty” – by then already into his eighties, between movements he sat slumped on a stool on the rostrum, head limply bowed, in reverie or exhaustion it was impossible to tell. Afterwards he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s award for lifetime achievement, and his short speech, having courteously affirmed his gratitude, concluded like this: “But against all the great composers whose music I have had the privilege to conduct; and against all the great musicians whom I have had the honour to work with; against all of them, a conductor” – he pinched thumb and forefinger together – “is but a speck of dust.”

But Harnoncourt’s lifetime achievement was more than just disavowing the role of the conductor as autocratic maestro, whose florid, narcissistic bow seems to imply that he (always a he) has not only conducted the piece but also composed every note and played every instrument. Musically Harnoncourt was central to another innovation in the performance of classical music which has since become mainstream. He went back to the original scores of composers like Brahms, to try and appreciate with the finest, most forensic study how this music would have been intended to be played, and then, especially with Baroque music, he arranged for it to be played on original instruments from the period. Hitherto the performance of classical music, to be very broad-brush about it, had since the nineteenth century become both progressively louder and increasingly undifferentiated: all music from all periods tended to be bashed out in the same cavalier way. Harnoncourt was more exacting, but also more humble: valued historical awareness: took it as read that you couldn’t perform something in the present without being aware of its past.

And now the cricket season is upon us, and we’ve seen the last of the World T20 for a good while, all this has taken me back to Steve Waugh at Canterbury.

It was the summer of 1988, I think, when he was playing for Somerset, in the great days when the world’s best overseas players still put in a full season for their county, and came out to bat that Saturday at the St Lawrence Ground against, not a vintage Kent bowling attack, but one still mustering Matthew Fleming and Roy Pienaar. By late afternoon he was walking back to the pavilion after a hitherto chanceless 177. By chanceless I mean just that: not a single shot – not one! – was played in the air. Every stroke – not a blow, not a hit – was to the pitch of the ball, and a classical cover drive, on-drive, late cut or sweep. “We’ll wait a long while to see another innings like that,” my friend Richard murmured to me as we all sat down again after the standing ovation. I still am.

When Gideon Haigh was over for the Ashes last year, he was telling me how much he hates to get out, when he plays cricket for his club back in Melbourne. Many top players these days, he mused, don’t seem to mind as much. There’ll be another T20 along tomorrow for them to have another go, I suppose, which is why holing out again on the boundary is no big deal. Gideon only gets the chance to play once a week, and then not even bat every time. So isn’t there something to learn, for all forms of cricket, from that chanceless innings at Canterbury? If you don’t hit the ball in the air you can’t get out caught?

It wasn’t an insight that seemed to have penetrated the brief – like, one-minute – highlights of the World T20 I watched on the BBC website, the most that the hoi polloi without a satellite subscription were allowed. But I found I didn’t miss more: I was already bored… Nowadays the boundary rope appears to be five rows back in the top tier. I was even bored by that Chris Gayle century against England, granted the singular skill of stepping back to smack every short-of-a-length ball over mid-off for a “maximum”. It looked exactly like the one he scored in the T20 Blast last season for Somerset.  

A different kind of highlight came to mind: a single over of a BBC-televised Benson & Hedges match between Northants and Hampshire that Bishen Bedi padded in to bowl to Trevor Jesty. No runs were scored; no wicket fell. But Richie Benaud, commentating, who as a spinner himself appreciated these things, and especially in a limited-overs match, was as spellbound as I by the guile, the variation, the wit, of those six deliveries that had Jesty poking and jabbing and lunging to keep off his stumps, which to his equal credit he did.

In cricket the music has got louder these days, more strident, less differentiated, with all forms, 20-over, 50-over, even Test matches, increasingly being played in the same way. But if the game were humbly to acknowledge that however we do it now presumes a certain attitude to the past, and accept we might at least make a point of studying how they did things then, perhaps we’d find it being played as Waugh and Bedi did, and “played on original instruments” could even become a viable marketing strategy. “Ponsford’s innings reminded us that there is one glory of the sun and another of the moon,” writes Cardus, in a little volume called Good Days I picked up last summer at Sussex’s Horsham festival. (My edition was published in 1937 in Jonathan Cape’s “New Library” series along with titles by, among others, Herman Melville, Edward Thomas and Gertrude Bell – how wonderful that back then it seemed second nature to include a cricket writer among such peers.) The sun was Bradman in the Fourth Test of the 1934 Ashes series at Old Trafford, scoring 388 to Ponsford’s 181; together they achieved a record stand for a Test match of 388 in five hours and a half. “He was no bass fiddle in the orchestra of the day’s batsmanship,” declares  Cardus; “his innings was a solo part, too – in a double concerto of classical cricket.”  

David Bowie’s Lost Concept Album

How do you hit a six when you’re playing cricket indoors?

In the particular match I’m thinking of I don’t recall any being signalled, though almost every shot was lofted – but things were certainly knocked for six. Solid dark-wood bookcases, mostly.

The venue for this impromptu fixture was the book department in Harrods’ department store, Knightsbridge, SW1, second floor, if I remember rightly: off the escalator and through bedlinen, past assistants resignedly patting and plumping pillows with unnecessary frequency. It was just after six o’clock, when the store had closed for the day, and it was 1980. Good grief.

The book department, like all of Harrods in those days except for the Way In boutique on the top floor, was a hushed, strictly formal place. Working there in my year off between school and university, I found myself reproved one day by the floor manager for wearing “the loudest suit in the department”: it was a muted brown. Padding about the carpeted floor to locate a lavish coffee-table book on Persian carpets, we were “Mr This” and “Miss That”, at all times. The presence of women apart, something of the pavilion at Lord’s, and definitely Gentlemen rather than Players. The manager, a kindly, bearded man in his sixties, I would think, the sort of man you’d expect to smoke a pipe, and did, sat at a large leather-topped desk every morning and peered over his half-spectacles at the publishers’ reps trying to sell him their latest titles, and when it was the new Graham Greene or the new John Le Carré he’d order seven hundred and fifty copies, just like that, and months later they’d be wheeled in on trolleys, box upon box after box, by men in green nylon coats.     

But this one evening it must have been the buyer’s day off, and it would also have been the start of the cricket season, because the new Wisden was out, which was why we had a display on one of the tables of a pile of thick yellow tomes, together with a bat, a ball and other cricket accessories borrowed from the sports department. The last customers had asked in their clipped way for their purchases to be put “on accine-t” and drifted out, the tills had been cashed up, and that was stumps.

Except that suddenly the diminutive children’s book buyer was taking strike, to the underarm bowling of the paperback buyer, and no matter that she was playing rather across the line, with the bat somewhat away from her body. Thwack! – and that nice new cherry was going crash!-doonk!-crash! out on the on side, ricocheting from bookcase to bookcase, from History to Architecture to Biography. Another mighty swipe, and despite no back-lift to speak of, with a gunshot crack – the noise, when you smite a cricket ball in a confined space! – the next one was sailing past the tills over extra cover towards Food and Drink, and bidding to go all the way into the paperback room. I guess that would have been six, as would depositing it behind square leg amongst the Beatrix Potter figurines and the Famous Fives next door in children’s.

I can’t remember how the game concluded that evening: maybe we all just went on to the pub, as the young people among us used to do quite a lot. But I do remember, several weeks later, learning that the book department had had to pay the sports department for that no longer pristine bat with the red marks all down its blade, and the ball with the chunks taken out of it by the corner of a solid wood bookcase.

And this was where, on another day working in Harrods’ book department, I met David Bowie.

I was stationed on the till that morning, just before lunch, when a thin, serious man suddenly materialised in front of me and, looking up from under a floppy hank of hair, inquired shyly if we had a copy of Scouting for Boys.

No, we hadn’t, I was afraid: from my own scouting days I knew you had to go to the Scouts Association shop in Buckingham Palace Road to get it. There was an attractive dark-haired woman with him I subsequently discovered to have been Oona Chaplin, whom he’d got to know in New York while appearing in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man. The other book he was looking for, he said quietly, was The Count of Monte Cristo. I went and had a hunt in Classics: we hadn’t got that either. That was David Bowie!, I murmured to my colleagues after he’d left empty-handed, and later was mortified to find they’d gone and accosted him just outside the department to request his autograph, which he’d courteously obliged.

As far as I know, right up until he died last month David Bowie had no connection with cricket whatsoever, though I look forward to being corrected. But I think that dignified, retiring customer I encountered could have done. As who, though? Perhaps among the ranks of the more cerebral county captains around at that time – a Richard Gilliat, say, or a John Barclay? A spin bowler, no question, not a quick, and a measured, judicious batsman, not a pinch-hitter. Not an instinct player, either: a thinker – ever pondering, hunkered in the slips, pen poised over Times crossword while waiting to come in, how do we play this game? A proper sportsman; never a sledger. A clever man, to play a clever game. I could certainly see him at Hove – simultaneously raffish and home to the odd retired Major.

But – Scouting for Boys! I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Harrods’ book department had been able to find him a copy that day. Scary Monsters came out that year, 1980 – but what on earth might have been the concept album that followed..?

The View From the Hammock

This blog will not be written from out in the middle. I don’t play cricket. Never have, really, apart from a consistently unsuccessful school career where I never got picked for the school team, and the unavailability of toughened plastic lenses to enable me to play in glasses proved rather a handicap – and a solitary day’s single-wicket competition on a mudbath of a wicket in Bourn, Cambridgeshire on which, remarkably, I did manage to get a few runs.

I merely watch cricket. Not even on television these days, since I don’t have Sky, and not at Test matches: just county cricket – and even then, not at echoing, empty stadia, but, resolutely, only at picturesque festival grounds. I make an exception for a few county grounds like Canterbury and Hove. All this does narrow the focus, I grant you.

I don’t much mind who wins, either: I go to watch play – that’s all. I go for a nice day out: an occasion. And that’s what I shall write about. Not about whether Ian Bell should be in the Test side, or whether KP should be recalled, or who’s going to win the next World Cup. How should I know, even if I cared enough? I usually travel a fair way to see a day’s cricket, so I expect more than just 90-odd overs of a particular game: I hope for an event, and I’m interested in how and why it becomes one, and what kind. When the trend of sports coverage seems ever more concentrated on the minutiae of a game itself, with endless counter-factual speculations on how tactics, decisions and outcomes could and should have been different, I’m of the opposite inclination: easily distracted; a divergent thinker, I guess would be the technical term.

I’m on the outside: casting an eye on the action from my metaphorical hammock slung between those two trees beyond the boundary rope. That’s what’s intriguing and important about sport: that, while its oblivious exponents and aficionados are so caught up in this strange exclusive ritual, everything else that has nothing to do with sport is still coming into it. You get a good view of all that, swinging idly in your hammock.