Monday May 19th was a sweltering hot day and I was in St John’s Wood. I’d travelled there to visit Lord’s Cricket Ground, where a seminar on Open Access, sponsored by the publisher Taylor & Francis, was taking place. It’s the nearest that I’m likely to get to a cricket pitch while I’m able to exercise free will, as cricket is a game that has always mystified and bored me in equal measures of profundity. I had been a guest at a Lord’s hospitality suite once before, in the late 1990s, when I worked at Waterstones. Unusually for me, I can’t remember the exact purpose of this earlier meeting. I therefore conclude that it was probably about something quite unpleasant – such as redundancies, budgetary shortfall or the like – and that, accordingly, I’ve edited it from memory.
However, on this particular Monday, the sun was shining, which always puts me in a good mood. I was also pleased to have arrived in London early enough to explore a bit of St. John’s Wood en route. It’s not an area of London with which I’m familiar, but as lovers of late Victorian and Edwardian fiction will know, it was created to serve the semi-honourable purposes of aristocratic males who ‘played away’ by installing longstanding mistresses in bijou, affordable little houses not too far distant from the male clubs and the West End. St. John’s Wood thus became safe and ‘respectable’, at least on the surface, but was at the same time too humble and modest to attract dangerous interest from aristocratic wives and their friends. I’ve therefore always imagined that it would be smart and slightly exotic, with a hint of raffishness… and so it might have been a hundred years ago. Today, it has a slightly run-down air. Nevertheless, the pretty little houses are now obviously occupied by people with some means, as the expensive boutiques and upmarket coffee shops that throng the main street bear witness. I amused myself by sitting outside one of the latter, sipping a cappuccino and listening to a very young Yummy Mummy, with a designer baby on her hip, recounting the rigours of her day to two adoring older women. It was with reluctance that I tore myself away from eavesdropping on their conversation and pressed on to the cricket ground itself.
By mid-day, the conference was going well. The air conditioning was very efficient, which meant that spending the lunchtime break inside would have been a good soft option. But I knew I could not miss this rare opportunity to explore Lord’s, considered by ‘foreigners’ to be as much a national treasure as Madame Tussaud’s or the Tower of London. I therefore made the valiant effort to venture into the heat of the noonday sun (not quite a mad dog nor, clearly, an Englishman) to try to capture some of its venerated atmosphere.
I soon discovered that those who have renovated and re-designed the cricket ground in recent years have cunningly made it almost impossible for non-patrons to sneak in and spectate illicitly. Given my total failure to appreciate the charms of cricket, this didn’t worry me in the slightest, though it did mean that the only photographs I could take were extremely long shots of the pitch. I quickly also found that, although the day was perfect for snoozing in the stands, the match in progress had attracted somewhere between fifty and a hundred spectators – certainly no more. Tier upon tier of seats were standing empty.
From this (rightly or wrongly!), I deduce that the great majority of the population feels roughly the same about cricket as I do and I suppose that the winter’s utter humiliation of the national side down under hasn’t helped to put bums on seats. How, then, does the game manage to perpetuate itself? I looked around me. Not only are there several hospitality suites at Lord’s, in the grandest of which my conference was taking place, but there are also some very chic bars and cafés, a shop selling ‘artisan’ ice-creams and another selling Lord’s souvenirs. It’s clearly one of those places you go to in order to be seen and say that you’ve been, and incidentally spend a significant amount of money in the process. This must be how the fine old institution of Lord’s not only survives but thrives, financially speaking. The cricket itself to me seems incidental, a charmingly eccentric pastime engaged in by a few aficionados and the equally stalwart cognoscenti who constitute their fans.
And so the quintessential Britishness of the Lord’s experience is preserved for posterity. It’s a kind of double standard, not unlike the double standard operated by those not-quite-caddish gentlemen who ‘protected’ their mistresses in St. John’s Wood whilst ensuring that they caused their wives no distress or embarrassment by letting them loose in Kensington or Belgravia. (A less generous approach, if you’ll forgive me, wouldn’t have been ‘cricket’.) How fitting that this suburb’s now old-fashioned charms should still be home to a national game that does not quite seem to have kept pace with the times.