Lizzy Ammon’s lovely piece in The Cricket Monthly explains why she can write,
“A friend recently asked me what it was that had made me left-wing. “Cricket,” I replied.”
I (nearly) could have written the opposite!
I was about to turn 16 when Mrs Thatcher came to power and more interested in my exams later that month than what the Prime Minister planned to do, but that ambivalence was soon to change as I started reading NME, listening to The Clash and The Jam and noticed that my city, Liverpool, was being hollowed out. Over the previous winter, I had seen the ugly side of the Left in the strikes and the screaming headlines of the Right’s propaganda sheets (then, as now, the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail) but this systematic evisceration of northern industry was of a different order. It was a class conflict led by a woman with her hands on the levers of State and a will to use them.
Though I’ve never voted anything other than Labour, and never will (as anyone who voted for Frank Dobson and against Ken Livingstone in 2000 can confidently assert), my political views were being shaped not by economics, but cultural values. I watched The Boys From Blackstuff, laughed at Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle and sat in The Scala for hours with Andrei Tarkovsky’s long takes for company, squinting at the subtitles. I latched on to the thinking of Antonio Gramsci, probably through one of those long interviews that NME would publish with some geeky New Wave band (Scritti Politti if you want me to guess). A bit later, I graduated to Marxism Today and wallowed in Martin Jacques’ ongoing critique of Thatcherism. (I ended up doing an MA in Communication, Culture and Society at Goldsmiths 15 years later, so it was no passing fad and, if truth be told, even today, I see politics as a cultural as much as an economic preference).
Pulling against all that was, er… cricket. At 15, I was playing for Hightown IIIs (and sometimes IIs) on the beautiful fields of the Liverpool Competition’s grand old club grounds. I opened the bowling at Southport and Birkdale, Oxton, Chester Broughton Hall, Liverpool itself and many more clubs that reeked of private wealth, of (and the Honours Boards bore testimony to this) privilege being handed down from generation to generation, and of what can be achieved when you can close a gate behind you and lock it (literally and metaphorically). I played at some of Liverpool’s old schools too: Merchant Taylors, St Francis Xavier and Liverpool Collegiate – very different from my 70s comprehensive. Only feeling a momentary sense of intruder guilt, I liked these places much more than the well-meaning, but tatty, municipal facilities – who wouldn’t?
I also liked the men with whom I played. Many, though not all, were in the professions – doctors, lawyers, accountants – and they were funny, relaxed and confident. They also talked about the kinds of films I was starting to enjoy and they told wickedly indiscreet stories about their clients that I, standing at first slip as I could catch pigeons then, lapped up with ears flapping like an elephant’s. These men were, needless to say, not natural lefties. (In parallel, I realised that I favoured polite, middle-class girls too, especially when their parents owned holiday cottages…)
There were other seductive aspects of middle-class life to which cricket introduced me. I recall waiting at a bus stop chatting to my next door neighbour when my lift to the game pulled up – in a Jaguar XJS. I regret to say that I don’t believe I failed to mask a smug grin as I climbed in – hell, I was 16 FFS! The car was… fabulous!
I liked cricket crowds too. They were partisan (at Old Trafford or a Lancashire outground, especially for a Gillette Cup tie) and boozy, but the frisson was born of competition and not of violence. I liked going to Everton matches home and away in the 70s and 80s, but, though actual hooliganism was rare, its threat was never absent. And neither was the racism, which, my heart sinks as I write, I saw again at Selhurst Park in April 2016 after years of complacency that it had gone forever.
This tapestry was what cricket showed me – the English Middle Class at their best, self-effacing and relaxed, rather than strident and strutting, an image their leader at Number Ten so often adopted. Though cricket in the North of England has never been the preserve of public schools and their products, its tone was set by middle-class mores and, though it had room for a working class lad like me, I knew that I had to bend to its culture rather than it bend to mine – and, of course, why should it?
Thirty-odd years on, cricket has problems reaching out to a much more diverse country than it was when I was running in at Neston in 1980 (4-14, since you ask) but this personal tale isn’t really about that. It’s about how cricket, working against so much evidence to the contrary, nearly lined me up with Norman Tebbit and Geoffrey Howe, however preposterous that looks now.