June 1954

Siegfried Sassoon and cricket

James D. Coldham
James D. Coldham looks at the connection between Siegfried Sassoon and cricket



Siegfried Sassoon: a revealer of war © Getty Images
To the general public Siegfried Sassoon is "a revealer of war " in his bitterly satirical Great War poetry and semi-autobiographical, tragically vivid prose; one of the earliest authors of the 1920's to demonstrate that the pre-1914 period is rich literary material, and enjoy-able to remember; and a post-1919 poet of largely delicate and reticent reflection, with "lovely suggestions of far-away muted music." It may not be generally known that he has contributed several interesting items to the storehouse of cricket literature.

Of very talented stock, he was born in September, 1886, and lived his years at Matfield in the idyllic Weald of Kent. He was moulded by the culture of the English country house during its twilight hours before the lamps were extinguished in 1914, when "France was a lady in a short skirt. Russia a bear, and the performances of the county cricket team more important than either of them."

He longed to become a poet; cricket and fox-hunting also claimed his affections. He soon discovered. however, that few poets of his acquaintance could appreciate cricket, and few cricketers and fox-hunters could appreciate poetry.

During his youth, the cricketing atmosphere was rarely absent. His father, who died quite young, was. according to a villager, "a rare good one ...at getting his bat down to a shooter " on the village green; Siegfried's brothers were enthusiasts; the Marchant family were neighbouring land-owners, and Frank Marchant captained Kent; Richardson, a servant of the Sassoons was captain of the village team, and a dashing left-handed batsman: and three tutors were enthusiasts, the meekly authoritative James Moon, an inoffensive but accurate lob bowler: one nicknamed "Uncle," who had kept wicket for Kent, and whose way of walking "suggested a wicket-keeper changing ends between the overs," and CH Hamilton, a stylist who batted brilliantly in local cricket. The latter was an old Rugbeian and, at Cambridge, where he had captained his College XI, had been a friend of Gilbert Jessop.

Sassoon played for his village at a tender age, and delighted in the "local Derby" between Brenchley and Horsemondon. Eventually, he went to Marlborough and played respectably for his House team for two summers, once capturing 7 for 18 in a Lower House match.

For several years he played for the Blue Mantles, whose headquarters were at Tunbridge Wells. NF Druce, who had played for Surrey and England in his youth. was the most prolific batsman; Dr Conan Doyle appeared occasionally, but his "batting was rather on its last legs and his artful slows had lost their former effectiveness." Sassoon in 1910 and 1911 batted in 51 innings and returned an average of 19: "quite a creditable record for a poet."

He has a wistful regard for the county cricket of his youth

While at Marlborough his poetic talent developed steadily, and he contributed the first three of his five poems to the magazine Cricket. With the exception of one non-cricketing poem in The Thrush, a poetry magazine, these were his earliest published verses:

April 9, 1903 - The Extra Inch (A Forecast with Regard to the Probable Alteration of the Wickets, with Apologies to the late C. Kingsley).
April 23, 1903 Spring (With all Due Deference to Lord Tennyson's Opinions).
January 28. 1904 -To Wilfred - Bowling (A Reminiscence of the Second Test).
December 22, 1904 - Yuletide Thoughts
August 10, 1905 -Dies Irae (On Watching a Match in which Full Pitches by Fast Bowlers were among the Noticeable Points in the Game).

These little-known contributions possess no outstanding merit. Essentially imitative, they are redeemed by enthusiasm. Sassoon has not included them in his published collections of poetry, although "The Extra Inch" is reprinted in one of his prose works*.

His only other thorough-going cricket poem is "The Blues at Lord's " from his Satirical Poems (1926). He avers that " though the Government has gone vermilion " it is indisputable "that, while the Church approves, Lord's will endure."

He has a wistful regard for the county cricket of his youth. He writes in 1932: "The players all looked so unlike one another then: and there was an air of alfresco intimacy about their exploits which lent them a fuller flavour than seems perceptible now ....It seemed more like home-made cricket in those days, and the people who played it really went home after the game instead of--as one imagines now--being incorporated into the machinery of the popular press." Two of his heroes were Baldwin of Hampshire, one of the stoutest bowlers he ever saw, and Humphreys of Sussex, the lob bowler who wore a pale pink flannel shirt with an artfully flapping sleeve.

On village cricket Sassoon is in the tradition of Mary Russell Mitford, HG Wells, Hugh de Selincourt and others. "The Flower-Show Match" from his classic, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, is drawn from life. All the well-loved country types are there, and the result is a charming fragment of a pre-1914 summer.

The Great War came, and Sassoon, as an infantry officer who became very well acquainted with it, was moved more profoundly than most men. In his vivid writings nostalgic cricketing memories are recollected. Shortly before a bombing party, of which he is in charge, sets off, he discusses the Canterbury Cricket Week; several soldiers play at a rest camp with a stump, a wooden ball, and an old brazier as a wicket; on the road to Arras "our second-in-command, a gentle, middle-aged country solicitor, was walking beside me, consoling himself with reminiscences of cricket and hunting "; and, while moving up to the front on another occasion, there is " something in the sober twilight which could remind me of April evenings in England and the cricket field where a few of us had been having our first knock at the nets. The cricket season had begun. .

Although Siegfried Sassoon has written too little about cricket for our delight, what he has contributed possesses an old-world quality and is a happy reflection of the period in which he is most at home.

* The Old Century, And Seven More Years.

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