Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Bye Bye Bob - A Kentishman Remembers

Cricket's loss is great, but Bob Woolmer's death further damages a nearly-extinct regional identity, says Paul Stump

The character of Kentishness manifests itself negatively, in an inability to reconcile a geographical and demographic anomaly; Kent is the closest English county to mainland Europe, and quasi-paradoxically, all the more English for this reason. Proximity to London ensures that cropheaded criminal classes made good buy up its acres to erect shrines to their hardness, their shooters, their horrid wives; all of Kent is a safehouse for ill-gotten loot, booze, drugs, blades. Wanna get tooled up? Go to Kent. There's this geezer... there's always a geezer in Kent.

The Isle of Sheppey is like a chunk of the East End come adrift and stranded on a mudbank where the Thames saltily greets the Downs and Dogger. There's even a prison there, just to make the locals feel at home.

Yet see Canterbury, during summer buntinged like Honfleur or Deauville, look at the late-August light falling on village sodalities outside inns and taverns from Lamberhurst to Cliftonville and compare these scenes with those of petanquistes from Armentières to what the English stil call Agincourt. There is always so much time on a Kentish summer day.

Escapees from post-Revolutionary terrors found a welcome in Kent. Only Canterbury among all county cricket grounds could be so foppishly silly and aristocratic that it would allow a 200-year-old lime tree within the playing area (ball lodged in branches = 5 runs). Norman arches, the grafting of orchards and production of cider, shepherding techniques... across Kent, there are links with northern France. Do the swifts linger longer over the ponds at Guines or at Goudhurst? Discuss.

But in Kent things are changing, rapidly, and depressingly. The saltmarsh lamb of Romney, the cockles of the estuaries, are not to be found on the lunchtime menus of pubs owned by the estimable Faversham brewers Messrs Shepherd, Neame and Co (*1698). The Kentish accent is being dragged out to drown in La Manche among the rumble of the Dymchurch shingle. Which is why Kent cricket matters, and why Bob Woolmer's death matters. It's another little bit of my home turf gone.

Kent cricket as embodied by Bob Woolmer had the languid aesthetics of the monied and landed gentleman classes that the Normans first introduced to these islands- and that disestablishment and the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution never quite subdued in means-ends practicalities, the causes of subservience and duty. Woolmer, born of colonials in Kanpur, had time to cultivate his art. His mentor was another icon who combined a delight in the luxury of aesthetics, of art for art's sake, with the nagging matter of attention to honour and self-sacrifice. M.C. Cowdrey, of course - orotund and unlikely world master of the off-drive, whose feather-light waft powered the ball to the boundary simultaneously as a gesture and as an apology.

Read Proust's accounts of Balbec and Combray; one could be reading accounts of Mackenzie's or Bates's or Sassoon's descriptions of bucolic Kent, its shades of green as varied as its shades of Normanesque class division. Proust's childhood is that of a human being innocent of care, of money; a true amateur, whose ethos was underpinned by inevitable overtones of political reaction and naivety (Kent is still the most right-wing of county clubs, Woolmer was one of innumerable Boer allies in apartheid's darkest hours). Like Ravel or Fauré, like Cowdrey, his art was singular, exclusive, but could not exist without discipline. 'Gosh,' Cowdrey once told a journalist, in a line that could not have been bettered by Wodehouse, Rattigan or early Dad's Army both in its vernacular rectitude and admission of a truism, 'I missed that ball and it almost got me out. I must put that right next time.' Woolmer was, like Sergeant Wilson, leisured enough to not care very much about his profession but still to care just enough; he was a metaphor for all of Kent cricket, and to all of Kent full stop, where agri-labourers' cider rations were made from sweet, swiftly-inebriating dessert apples like those of Artois and Picardy, not the tart cider apples of the West Country.

Woolmer belonged to a generation whose cricketing gifts seemed to be exchanged for a transformation of the county; his illustrious team-mates, the hyperactive little chisel-chinned Christian wickie Alan Knott and the estate-agent-turned-assassin, the spin king of Tudorbethan suburbia, Deadly Derek Underwood (Petts Wood, can you hear me?) were grammar school at best (Knott was actually Sec Mod). They were not 'right', their alma maters were not Sevenoaks or Tonbridge. They resembled the busily efficient incursion of the M2 ('Medway Motorway') and the M20 ('Maidstone Motorway') into the Downs; here came the chavs worried the brigs and admirals in the KCC yearbook. These players, pros all, were, for their time, rare things of modernist beauty for men and women of Kent, like the stunning crimson-cream Park Royal-bodied AEC coaches the East Kent Road Car Co. ran from the coast to London, like the Pininfarina-inspired sleekness of the malachite-and-grey Maidstone and District buses that linked the Weald and the capital. Kent won the county championship in 1970, 1977 and 1978, mopped up one-day cups at will. Lovely, lovely, lovely; but the rot was setting in. You can't keep that up; you won't; they didn't.

Big Bob played for England, scored three centuries, stonewallingly stove off Lillee and Thomson at the Oval in 1975, sent the Ockers home with sore feet, then cut loose two years later for a couple of golden knocks off Pascoe, Bright and a subdued Thommo. He tried to be a trier, a pragmatist, but never quite made it, except in emergencies. For Kent he kept wheeling away his military medium pace and distributed beautiful boundaries like a beneficent Christ doling out loaves and fishes. Even doing simple things meant a tiny flourish; that was the Kentish way. By 1984 it was all over. Asif Iqbal's flamboyant strokeplay, Underwood's cerebral subtlety, John Shepherd's ingenious combination of nurdling and Caribbean brutality; despite the best cavalier efforts of Eldine Baptiste, Derek Aslett and Laurie Potter, Woolmer went the way of bygone Kent, an aesthetically-minded grandee overtaken by parvenu vulgarians, like Knole built on by Lidl.

Kent survives, and in more than just the memory of the Shell guides; Plaxtol, Borstal, Cooling, Underriver, Horsmonden resound more to the rhythm of the white horse's hooves than the redeveloper's rotovator. The tiles of the old Kentish Style and Winch pub chain are surviving still at the Man Of Kent in John Street, Rochester. Aravinda da Silva's magic bat bewitched St Lawrence, The Mote, Nevill in the late 90s where the stylish shades of Cowdrey and Asif still echo; awesomely mad and lanky Windie spinner Roger Harper and tubby clubber Matthew Walker ditto. Bexley boy Min Patel's inexhaustible patience made him the most classically Kentish spinner of the fin-de-siècle.

But it's hard to say goodbye sometimes - and Big Bob, you made up what it means to be Kentish, right and wrong. For that -and for all those cover drives - thanks, big fella.

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