Advisory: Look out — here follows stuff about cricket and cremation.
Sport serves as a metaphor, even a proxy, for myriad rivalries: nation against nation, city against city, suburb against suburb. In soccer/football — let’s call it soccerball for convenience — just look at the genuine enmity that lies between FC Barcelona and Réal Madrid, and the mutual hatred shared by Manchester United and Liverpool; or at intra-city level there’s United and City, who both claim the sobriquet ‘Manchester’s team’. For sectarian spice (and some tasty violence, let’s face it) look no farther than Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.
Baseball has the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, and the Dodgers and … well, everybody. Nobody likes the Dodgers, right?
I don’t know all that much about Aussie Rules Football, but I’m given to understand that Carlton and Collingwood share, shall we say, a similarly keen sense of competition.
At international level, the apotheosis of the perennial love-hate relationship between England and Australia is The Ashes, the third match of the 2009 series of which begins on Thursday this week. At which point I should point cricket neophytes towards an explanation: Wikipedia will do for now.
Suffice to say, The Ashes is a quasi-biennial series of five matches of five-day cricket spread across the summer, alternating between Blighty and the Antipodes, that has been fought over since 1882, and which serves, even in these less-romantic and more hard-nosed professional times, to define those summers. To make a facile comparison, it’s like an elasticated seven-week World Series. But with tea and cakes.
How this cricket series came by its name has been discussed to the point of tedium. But this is cricket after all; you’re supposed to be bored, people seem to think. So I’ll run through it again, point by point.
- When Australia visited England in 1882, they arrived for the second Test at The Oval, London, having not won any of the eight matches the two nations had thus far contested.
- An act of chicanery by W. G. Grace lit such a rocket of righteous indignation under the Australians that it propelled them to a remarkable victory. Dr William Gilbert Grace was the best cricketer of his age and for a good while after: “a portly all-rounder”, according to Simon Briggs in The Daily Telegraph, “who shared a beard with Rasputin and a moral code with Al Capone.” He might have invented both gamesmanship and sporting celebrity.
- So fired up was the Australian fast-bowler Frederick ‘The Demon’ Spofforth (I kid you not) by the Doctor’s underhandedness that he took seven wickets for just 44 runs, and Australia won by a meagre six runs — to the shame and chagrin of the nation, the England team and its unfortunate captain A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby (really). Such was the tension in the closing minutes that one spectator keeled over with a fatal heart attack while another chewed clean through the handle of his bumbershoot.
- Reginald Shirley Brooks — journalist, boulevardier, flâneur, bon viveur, lothario, gambler and man-whose-middle-name-was-Shirley — felt moved to publish this now infamous mock obituary in The Sporting Times:
- A few months later the England team sailed to Australia to take up the cudgels once again. This time they were without W.G. Grace, who it might reasonably be assumed was omitted for fear of his bulk capsizing the ship or his extravagant beard fouling the propellor.
It seems that they took a splendid array of moustaches, though, and also the Honourable Ivo ‘Lemur’ Bligh (later 8th Earl of Darnby) as the new captain. Of the cricket team, not the ship.
And I made up the ‘Lemur’ part.
- On arrival, Bligh announced “We have come to beard the kangaroo in his den, and to try to recover those ashes” (which they did) thus cementing the term in in the popular imagination (without the capital ‘A’ just yet). Presumably, though, forced marsupial facial hair never caught on.
During the tour, the Hon. I. Bligh fell for a music teacher called Florence Morphy, and she for him. So besotted was she that at a Christmas party she mischievously presented Bligh with a tiny perfume jar filled with real ashes which became and remains the manifestation of the whole metaphorical conceit.
Oh, and they got married the following year.
Here we have your Ashes ‘trophy’, Ricky ‘Punter’ Ponting (Australia) brandishing it, and Andrew ‘Fred’ Flintoff (England) desiring it.
The gentlemen are not giants: it really is that tiny. But that’s not the original, I have to confess, which never leaves the display case at Lord’s, the home of cricket. The ashes contained in that wee jar (which came to be renamed ‘the urn’, for a more Olympian and hairy image) are supposed to comprise, depending on who you believe, the burnt remnants of either a ball or a bail or a stump or a veil or, god help us, an Aborigine.
Most likely they are nothing of the sort and were just sweepings from the grate, or the mortal remains of one of Florence’s lacy lavender-soaked handkerchiefs.
So that’s the outline of the story of The Ashes as briefly as I can sketch it. Which is still pretty lengthy but does not even scratch the surface of more than a century of drama, intrigue, sporting heroism, athleticism, stoicism, bravery, diplomatic incidents, blood, moustaches and cake.
But there is one twist to the original Ashes gag that is often overlooked or not even known. A subtly macabre and satirical political point was being scored, which would have been obvious at the time but which soon became lost amidst the romanticism and mythology of the contest itself.
In the late 19th century the practice of human cremation was illegal. The father of Reginald Brooks, author of that sardonic obituary to English cricket, was Shirley Brooks (from whom Reginald bequeathed his middle name) who was also a journalist (and author and playwright). He became editor of the satirical magazine Punch but was also a fervent campaigner for the right to cremate.
Shirley Brooks helped to found the Cremation Society of England, which included amongst its membership such luminaries as Anthony Trollope. The Society issued a Declaration that began “We the undersigned disapprove the current custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements.” Apart from anything else, they reckoned that those ‘component elements’ would make splendid fertilizer.
Before sufficient pressure and opinion could be brought to bear on Parliament, however, Brooks Sr. died and was buried not burned.
The Australian cricket team arrived in 1882, just as a Captain Hanham from Dorset was asking for the Society to help him cremate two family members. The government said ‘no’ but he went ahead anyway, building his own crematorium, if you please, and avoided prosecution.
Frustrated at not having been able to fulfill his father’s wishes in the same way, Reginald Brooks grasped the opportunity to make his point in print while simultaneously deriding the national sport. To which I say: “Neat, huh?”
The combatants resuming hostilities on Thursday in the soggy English Midlands will mostly be unaware of this darker motif. Quite right, too. They need just concentrate on hurling that hard red ball at each other with extreme prejudice.
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