Pick, pack, pock, puck

On cricket and Beckett, in The Vacuum. Just published and sponsored by the British Council as part of the Beckett festival in Enniskillen. The full text is here, and below, and in The Vacuum, distributed free in Belfast and beyond.

Pick, pack, pock, puck

I

There is an old quiz question, the answer to which is Samuel Beckett. Who is the only Nobel Prize winner to be listed in Wisden (Wisden being the almanac of cricket)? And it’s Sam. Of course, being listed in Wisden is only evidence that you have played first-class cricket. It is no guarantee of having played well. It’s curious how academics and biographers have tended to tread a little gingerly around Beckett’s bowling and batting figures, as if there might be some shame in not having starred rather than just having played. Beckett’s entries in Wisden come from two touring games in which he was picked for Dublin University against the English county side Northamptonshire. Beckett opened the batting for Trinity against Northants in 1926. It was a four innings game. Beckett scored four runs in the first innings, one in the second. For those readers not familiar with cricket, this is not so good. Someone opening the batting is meant to stay in for a while longer than Beckett did and to score more runs. Polite commiserations would have greeted him at the pavilion, but glances would have been averted in tacit acknowledgement of his failure. Beckett also bowled – left-arm medium pace. He took no wickets in either match.

II

The cricket team I play for will never warrant an entry in Wisden. It was once, I recently discovered, mentioned on Test Match Special on BBC Radio 4 when an RTÉ presenter was discussing cricket in Ireland during an Ireland v. England match. Radio 4 politely ensures that a commentator from whichever nation is playing against England is represented in the commentary box. Our particular team, The Theatrical Cavaliers, has a grudge match against RTÉ each year and this game, named for obscure theatrical reasons ‘The Marlowe’, was used by the Irish commentator as an example of grassroots cricket in Dublin. Many excited texts were sent when the team got its ‘Beckett in Wisden’ moment on Test Match Special.

The Theatrical Cavaliers play by Taverners’ rules, a gently modified version of the game which allows everyone a fair go. I’m a bit-part player, with no specialism and no skill. I hardly played and certainly never excelled at school. And having played a lot in the past two years I have come to realize that I’m never really going to be much better than I am now. Finding this out was deeply dispiriting at first. But having to live with this knowledge, recognising my physical limitations and deteriorating loss of agility and co-ordination, has been a kind of relief. There is then no pressure to improve, or evolve. There is no looking forward breathlessly to enhanced techniques next season, nor to revelations in my capacity for concentration (for cricket involves long passages of dull attention). No, all I need now is an acceptance of my low-level but unappalling incompetence, interspersed with occasional flashes of what might have been, but never will. The sudden weight of the ball in my hand still shocks me. If I manage to hit the ball when I’m batting it feels like I may have broken something – the bat, a bone, a window, a long-standing convention. Maybe three times a season I play a shot which has the feel and sound of a ball which has been truly hit and I can watch it run off to the boundary, or, more likely, loop into the air and towards the lottery of catching which is Taverners’ fielding. And as that red ball unfolds its parabola I know that scoring four runs or being caught out is entirely down to chance. What a relief, what a lifting of daily responsibility, then accompanies the ball in its flight.

If my lack of proficiency might tend to make me shy of playing at all, then that is balanced against the pleasure of wearing the whites, of the sudden movements of the game, and the slow resettings of the field for the next ball. All of these are things I treasure. Clearly, in comparison to my teammates and I, Beckett was a fine cricketer. Maybe he enjoyed the theatricality of it all, the stage-direction series of motions. My teammates are mostly professional actors, and maybe that’s why they like it too, this idea that there is a slow script being acted out on the green stage on a summer’s evening. Each of us is then our own Clov, shuffling six steps to the left at the direction of the captain’s field placings. But this is a bit trite. I wonder, is there some more real connection between Beckett and cricket, other than the fact that he played it? Is cricket germane to his writing?

The closest I’ve ever been to Beckett, Beckett the person and thus the cricketer, was during an actual cricket match. One of original founders of The Theatrical Cavaliers was the actor Barry McGovern. The winter before last I listened to him read The Trilogy on CD. I played the CDs in the car everywhere I went for about a month. As well as being very moving, I found The Trilogy very useful for calming my children. A kind of quietness settled over them almost as soon as Barry picked up the narration. The Unnameable had a particularly soporific on a talkative five-year old. Then the following summer I played a match on the pitch in Trinity College, which would have been exactly the one Beckett played on. And there was Barry McGovern on my team. Barry, whose voice is now indistinguishable in my mind from Beckett’s. Barry bowled slow, looping balls high into the city sky (and, as it happened, the setting sun) which plonked down and lost all momentum just in front of a frustrated batsman. This batsman eventually angrily swung his bat at one rolling ball, missing it, and watched as it went modestly but inexorably towards his stumps, keeping back just enough energy to shake the stump in a way that meant a bail fell off. Which, again for those of you not au fait, means he was out. Not a happy man. Barry, on the other hand, wore a look on his face which he also deploys when he plays Vladimir in Godot. Sure that it was going to come. ‘Without fail’. Grimly sure and nearly comic.

III

It would be nice to believe that there is something about writers, or maybe the act of writing, which is in sympathy with playing cricket. Reading P.G. Wodehouse’s letters recently I found that he enthuses about cricket in the most banal ways. Wodehouse seems to be only able to talk about the game in a tone that mixes celebrity culture with old school affiliations. It’s all a bit dull and nauseatingly claustrophobic. But Wodehouse’s letters did reveal that P.G. was once a young upstart in a team that variously featured Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne and J.M. Barrie. A great batting line-up, and add to that the fact that Conan Doyle once, apparently, bowled out W.G. Grace (the god of cricketers) and it’s a team I’d have liked to play a game for. Though having Conan Doyle or Kipling as captain might take some of the pleasure out of it. Lots of fierce shouting, I think. There is, though, little more that we can discern from this coincidence of writers and cricket than what we already should know – that cricket was part of a class structure and was embedded in the Edwardian public school system in England. Wodehouse’s early sporting and crickety novels, The Golden Bat, for example, are rubbish, proving that hoping for any direct connection between the sport and (good) writing yields few rewards.

Maybe if Beckett had a Beckettian take on cricket it came not from his school and university background, or at least not in the same way as Wodehouse got his immersion in the game. Could it have been a less settled, more angst-ridden experience for Beckett? Did Beckett arrive at cricket with a consciousness that it was an English sport, played only on license by the non-English, and that to take part in the game was, above all, an ironic acting out of English public school identity? The logic here would be that anyone who plays cricket either is, or is self-consciously, playfully, ironically, imitatively, or in some tortured fashion, performing a quintessential act of Englishness. Vivian Mercier, for example, thought that this had some purchase in Beckett’s sense of himself as Irish. More widely the identity politics of cricket are largely based on variations of this postcolonial argument. C.L.R. James, in his famous book Beyond a Boundary, argues that in the Caribbean cricket was ‘appropriated’ as a form of anti-colonial resistance. It’s a compelling argument, partly built around proving that those who are not English but play cricket are not necessarily ‘mimic men’.

It’s hard to see Beckett mimicking anyone, though if there’s one writer he follows closely it is, of course, Joyce. Joyce has his cricket moments, both in Potrait of the Artist As a Young Man (“pick, pack, pock, puck”) and,more stupendously, in Finnegans Wake, in which there is a substantial cricketing passage (set in the Phoenix Park, home of the oldest cricket team in Ireland, ‘Phoenix’, who celebrate Major Robert Gregory and Charles Stewart Parnell as ex-members). Into this passage in the Wake is woven almost every cricketing term available to Joyce, and to the English language, at the time. Joyce manages to give each term some sexual double entendre (“caught in the slips”, that sort of thing), which can be seen either as a dig at the pomposity of cricketing parlance and all it represents, or a pleasure at entering and taking possession of yet another odd linguistic subculture.

The trouble with the post-colonial-identity take on cricket is that it assumes that being Irish or English or Indian is the foremost thing in the personhood of any particular individual at any particular moment. This is dandy in theory, but not helpful, nor perhaps even possible, when a cricket ball is coming towards you at 60mph. It must be very irritating for the current Irish cricket team, who are good and getting better, to have to deal with this identity crisis during fielding practice.

It is a real phenomenon though, this cultural war carried through cricket – just not the whole story. A few years ago Neil Hannon recorded an album with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash, under the title The Duckworth Lewis Method (a mathematical formula for working out who wins a game of cricket in case of rain). The standout track is ‘The Age of Revolution’, a blockbuster ELO-ish song celebrating the rise of Pakistani millionaire players and their new-found cricketing dominance in the global sport. Real post-colonialism then, and arguably an Irish identification with post-colonial counterparts. But it is only one song on a long album. Equally there’s ‘Out on the Boundary’ a meanderingly pleasant imitation of fielding on the outskirts of things on a quiet day, drifting off into an oblivion of ennui. That, rather than, sporting battles which equate with clashes of civilisations, seems more akin to what cricket actually is in its everyday experiences. Standing there with your hands behind your back, anticipating. Neil Hannon, it turns out, occasionally makes an appearance for the Theatrical Cavaliers. Imagine, he’s fielding beside Barry McGovern. It’s all coming together.

Cricket, like most sports, is the drama of being alive, played out on a field. But cricket may just be the sport most like a Beckettian life. Perhaps it was not mastery of the art of batting that made cricket important to Beckett. Maybe we don’t need to know that he was good enough to get that entry in Wisden. Cricket has a set of arcane rules with a self-supporting logic, but no real reason behind them. The game is held together only by the consensus that it might as well be played as not be played. Its ‘spirit’ is the tempering of the competitive urge with fierce, sometimes merciless politeness. The experience of playing cricket is not really one of spectacular skill and extraordinary human achievement (not for the everyday cricketer). And for every wicket taken there is the hanging head of a disappointed batsman. Cricket’s drama can be very undramatic.

Failure, accepting the universality of physical decrepitude, a slow, often uninteresting unfolding of a story, and, however long it takes to get there, a finale, are the true joys of playing cricket. It is a game orchestrated by arcane rules which can be endlessly discussed and never entirely, comprehensively, understood. This is the world not so much of Waiting for Godot as that of How It Is (“semi-side right left leg left arm push pull flat on face mute imprecations”). An Observer cricket correspondent once said of the English batsman Chris Tavare, who was notoriously unaspiring in his batting style, that watching him was like ‘waiting to die’. And this was praise. It is also a description of Company, or Worstward Ho. This is the thing that distinguishes cricket from most other sports: it understands boredom and, therefore, death. And especially death by boredom. If cricket meant anything to Beckett, if it’s in his writing anywhere, it’s not, I think, his achievement in getting in to Wisden that is important. The cricketing experience which really reappears in his writing is there in his trudge back in to the pavilion after being out for 1 in the second innings against Northants.

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