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The village feast in Ocentejo, a small village in the mountains of Guadalajara. Mid-August, but it looks like rain. The children have spent all morning stringing flags between the houses and around the four-pronged lamppost in the square. The Mayor has placed coloured lights under the balcony of the Town Hall and a huge stage has been set up before the green pelota wall for this evening's band - Retorno. The name of the band has been misspelled on all of the posters but no one seems to mind. Ocentejo is a small village and so has none of the attractions of its larger neighbour, Sacecorbo, 9 kilometres away across the hills; in their fiestas they have clay pigeon shooting (first prize, a ham), a rifle range (prizes ranging from plastic marihuana leaf key-rings to life-size (?) Picachus), five a side football (an ornate cup worthy of the Champions League itself), and cards and chess competitions (the prize being the prestige and pride of winning), but we have a new clock which plays Beethoven's Ode to Joy at 12 o'clock and the Ave Maria at 4. And we have the procession of the Virgin before Mass. The men of the village bid to see who will have the honour of carrying the four corners of the stand on which the Virgin is placed for the parade. This year, as much as 120 Euros was paid for a corner. The bidding is controlled by the Mayor and when it is over a small boy is sent to fetch the Priest from the bar. The Virgin almost waddles with the movement of the men because one front corner is being carried by the Justice of the Peace, a stocky, midgety man, and beside him, on the other corner, the builder - a giant Obelix of a man; the two rear corners are more evenly balanced by the Mayor and his brother-in-law, but despite their efforts they cannot compensate for the metre difference in height at the front. So the Virgin waddles and sways from side to side, like Charlie Griffith walking back to the end of his run up. Behind the Virgin, the women and children shuffle along and moan, rather than sing, a psalm. Most of the men wait back at the church, talking and checking the sky for rain. Like cricket, rain could stop play. But, for the time being, the clouds, though threatening and black, are blowing over to leave a patch of blue sky the size of an elephant's trousers (that, at least, is what my Great-grandmother used to call it). After mass, the Priest and the Mayor retire to the bar for an official lunch. The other members of the village, after a quick wine or two, go home to eat and then to rest. For it will be a long evening.

At about five, a battered, white van drives into the square and is immediately surrounded by excited children on bicycles. The musicians have arrived. Two adolescents, Meatball and The Off, help them with their equipment. Small children drift down to the square to watch as speakers The Who would be proud of are set up on stage. "Con Coretorno look like they may be quite good," says a cross-eyed youth with an earring, looking at the battery of speakers and misspelling the name of the group. "Yes," you say with the doubts of other years indelibly stamped, any hopes of good music snagging against the briar of past disappointment. The Bull strides over to you. "Looks loud," she says, not unimpressed. And so the square fills up with appreciative villagers who watch the unloading of equipment and comment on fiestas which are almost lost in the hazy distance of the past when they played real music like Solamente Una Vez. But they killed people then. Used to shoot them in the Civil War in the same place that they are now using for a stage. Prudencio the shepherd's father, for one. But Prudencio has not come down. He's sitting up in his house with his cats drinking a party-pack of wine. Offering dried sausage to the stray dogs.

The PA system crackles into life with the latest summer hit at about eleven o'clock. A few children stand mesmerised before the stage, their ears blasted by the sound. You sit, with some neighbours, on the terrace of the bar, looking on. "Some kids have come down from Esplegares and Sacecorbo," Saturnino, the Town Cryer, informs you proudly. This means the fiestas are a hit and may well end in an inter-village tussle in the early hours of the next morning. And finally, at ten past midnight, the music starts. A pasodoble, of course. The square fills up with kids and old couples. Clockwork style dancing, arms wrenching up and down, pumping water from an non-existent well, feet shuffling, no rhythm, except for Mary Poppins, who almost waltzes in her enthusiasm. The singer is a fat-thighed girl in fishnet tights who sings nasally out of tune. But she is wearing a very short, leather skirt and that makes up for her inability to carry a tune.

The first old couples begin to abandon the square at about 3 a.m. and the music moves forwards a couple of generations: Bon Jovi - It's My Life. Tight, leather trousers and a halter-neck top have replaced the fishnet tights, breasts now bouncing freely in time to the music. Smoke from dry ice drifts across the stage. They have a go at Proud Mary but it is a disappointing effort. Nobody notices, however. The villagers bop, shake their heads, play air guitars - all having a great time, oblivious to the fact that the lead guitar is half a bar ahead of the bass, and that the drummer is somewhere else altogether - possibly even playing a different song. The fat-thighed girl struts across the stage, pushing her way through the smoke from the dry ice, and wails and warbles. A three-year-old child sits on an empty crate of beer, crumples forwards and goes to sleep in the middle of the square. Nobody even seems to notice. The dancing continues on around him. Relationships are forged. An English boy gets a love bite up against the wall of the old school. "I didn't know what she was doing," he would confess the following day. Because she wasn't the prettiest girl there. In her village she is known, in fact, as The Transvestite. "She just came at me," he would say, bashfully. Until suddenly, it is 6 a.m., and it is all over. The fat thighed girl is encased once more in her Wranglers and no longer looks to be the star she was only a couple of hours ago. The kids wander off to their club where they will continue drinking and listening to music until about ten and the parents trudge home. "It's the nearest thing there is to a Test Match," you tell your wife. But she is too tired to be interested. That's your excuse, anyway.

13 September 2010
Keywords: Village Feast
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            Sitting on the terrace of a bar in Sanlúcar de Barrameda overlooking the beach as the sun goes down and four JCB’s lurch over the sand, yellow lights flashing on the cabs. You drink ice cold manzanilla because this is where it’s made. And pick at a plate of fried, white prawns, the salt sticking to your fingers. You’ve been told that the four JCB’s are preparing the beach for the horse racing next week, but they just seem to be churning up the sand. A fishing boat, mast full of lights, slides slowly down the estuary towards Costa Ballena, where you are staying. Loosely translated, this is Whale Coast, which sounds like it should be some place in Newfoundland, rather than the south of Spain. But it is a wild Atlantic coast, with rolling, white-capped waves, strong undercurrents tugging at your legs, lifting you off your feet, sand dunes and spiky grass bordering the beach. Somewhere out at sea, whales calling out sadly, blasting fountains into the air. In the bar, there are old sepia coloured photographs on the wall. Photographs of large beached whales surrounded by men in oil skins and surprised faces staring into the camera. There are also photographs of the horses cantering over the sands and over the years. The first race held in 1845. At the beginning of the last century, only a handful of people watching. Last year, thousands. Things to do on the beach: whale hunting, horse racing, sunbathing, building sandcastles, and cricket. Not at West Bay, because the beach is full of pebbles, but on the flat, sandy, North Sea coast, at Scarborough, where the sea’s so cold it makes your head ache. Playing on the damp, tide-flattened strip of sand at the edge of the sea, fielding in the fluffy dry sand that tumbled over your feet as you ran, if you were lucky, and in the icy water if not. Bowling with a bald, yellow tennis-ball. Hit-and-run, to make it more exciting. Spectacular, diving catches in the sea, because looking cool was more important than feeling warm. Especially if there were girls watching. Except sometimes they wanted to play too and then you had to play ‘French cricket’. Standing there, the bat stupidly in front of your legs so you couldn’t swing properly. And what was the point of the game, anyway? You couldn’t get any runs, just count how many balls you could stay in for. No doubt Geoff Boycott was an expert French cricketer. Stay in all day. And why is it called that? Is it because it is an effeminate version of the real thing? French toast, French letter, French windows, French horn, French kiss, French cricket. You try to find a connection, in vain. In Spanish, a French valediction is to leave without saying good-bye. No connection there either. So you get up and go back into the bar where you buy a post-card with a photograph of a stranded whale on the beach of Costa Ballena and you scribble a hasty note to James. Having a whale of a time, you say. And you leave it at that. Without saying good-bye.

11 August 2010
Keywords: French toast, French letter, French windows, French horn, French kiss, French cricket.
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     Years ago you went on holiday to France with your father. It was, according to your mother, so that you could get to know each other better. You were learning to drive at the time, and thought you were going to be able to practice. Your father had different ideas. “You can’t drive on the Continent,” he said as you pulled off the ferry, out of Calais and onto the motorway, trees lining the road like an impressionist painting. We were travelling in a metallic sky blue Ford Capri. In silence. With the rain sheeting across the windscreen. After about forty miles, with the rain still gusting at right angles across the road, your father said, “If it’s like this in Trent Bridge the Test Match’ll be buggered.” He thought for a moment and then added, “Probably not a bad thing at that.” You felt that maybe he resented having to take you on holiday instead of being allowed to sit at home in his armchair watching the cricket.

            It was still raining when you stopped for lunch. Despite the rain he insisted on getting the picnic table and chairs from the boot and spreading a paper tablecloth out beneath the bread and cheese you’d bought that morning in Calais. “Your mother wouldn’t like to think of us eating like animals,” he explained. And then he placed a small transistor radio on the roof of the Capri and said, “Short Wave.” At the time it meant nothing to you. Until, as if by magic, through the crackling interference and whistling of the radio you heard, “And that’s the first ball I’ve seen move all morning.”  (Although it was more like – That’s the wheegrrrwooo I’ve eeeeeooogrrrr all morning.) Your father fiddled with the luminous dial and managed to coax a second sentence from the radio before it turned into a continuous crackling blur. “That’s that then,” he said, snapping it bad-temperedly into silence and tossing it onto the back seat of the car. You felt he somehow blamed France.

            You stayed in a small hotel in Tours that first night and when you came down from taking the cases to the room you found your father being talked at by a ruddy-cheeked German, who only needed the lederhosen and the pork-pie hat to be a cartoon German. “They think we’re German,” he told you, not able to hide the distaste this caused him. “Why?” you asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “What did you say to them?” you asked. “Nothing,” he said, “just: Le voiture is in die strasse.” “Oh,” you said, tugging him away by the shoulder, and to the German, “Achtung! Englander!” The German made a machine gun with his arms and shot you both with a rosy grin and a rat-a-tat-tat bunched in a bubble of air in his cheek. “All Europeans now,” he said, turning away and shrugging his shoulders at the French hotel owner. You got the impression that the Frenchman might have put it a different way. Your father certainly would. And to prove it, that evening, when everyone else was watching the television, he brought out the crackling radio and tried to find the sports news on the World Service. “Cricket,” he explained to the bemused German, nodding at the offensive burping of the little radio. “Are you vinning?” the German asked, trying to be polite at least. “You don’t win in cricket,” said your father. “Not on the first day.” “Sometimes not at all,” you added, wishing to confuse him still more. “Ah! You English!” the German said, waving a big paw of a hand with downy blond hairs covering the freckles. And that was sufficient explanation, it seemed. Even for the French, who nodded and scowled at the intrusive, crackling radio.

            That night, when you were in bed and when he had turned the light off, your father said, “When we get to Paris, I’ll take you to the Café de Paris. Went myself a couple of times after the War.” And then almost immediately started snoring through the lush petticoats of can-cans and bright, red, painted lips. And still it rained on outside, water bursting against the closed window and blowing threateningly towards England.

                And by the time you reached the Loire Valley, France was bathed in bright sunshine, the reception on the radio was perfect, but it was Brahms. Rain had stopped play at Trent Bridge and didn’t look like it was going to clear up. Your father was not pleased and you often wondered whether that was why he never took you to Paris to see the can-can. Or why he left the short wave radio on the roof of the car just outside Abbeville.

6 July 2010
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(This was written during the 2002 World Cup)


The World Cup final today saw Brazil beat Germany 2-0. And even after more than a week, the Spanish press is still belly-aching over the fact that Spain were robbed against South Korea. Only this morning in the newspaper it referred to the forthcoming final as “Spain’s final”. Commenting on Collina as the referee, it was “finally FIFA sees the error of its ways”. There was an article affirming that a “close friend” of the Egyptian referee – the only cause for Spain not being in the final – had told a friend of the reporter’s that he had been told that it was “better if South Korea beat Spain.” Thus proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was a conspiracy. The Spaniard is, though, notorious for having to find someone else to blame for his own shortcomings. Even for something as apparently insignificant as the Eurovision Song Contest becomes a test of national identity and pride. When Spain doesn’t win it is a combination of the conspiracy between the Nordic countries and the fact that the rest of Europe “doesn’t appreciate our culture.” It is never because the song is crap. And so the idea of “walking” in cricket is totally alien. A phrase like, “That’s just not cricket” means nothing. Whereas, in the Saxon world, rules are generally made to be kept, in Spain they are made to be broken. If you can get away with it. Except, of course, if you’re Korean and you’re playing against Spain. There is no equivalent in the Spanish language for “fair play”. If they have to talk about it, they use the English and then they think it refers to how many fouls are committed by each team. Diving in the penalty area has recently crept in, but sluggishly. And how many times have we heard, “Foul by Hierro – but he had to do it.” Speaking of Hierro, the comment on his ignominious penalty in the last minute against Ireland was also a classic in its way. Camacho, the Spanish coach, said, “You can’t blow a penalty like that in the 90th minute!” There was no question here of whether or not it was a penalty, just that at that stage of the game you shouldn’t notice. I spoke recently to some of my chums of the cheat Maradona and his hand of God in Mexico. “If you can get away with it...” they suggested, and went on to lament, “This was Spain’s World Cup.” “But you couldn’t even beat Ireland,” you reply churlishly. Ignoring you, they continue, “Spain-Brazil, that was the final.” You decide not to mention that had they beaten South Korea, they would still have had to play Germany. And having done that, beat Brazil. How far away from the old spirit of cricket. You can see it now, the cheat Maradona shaking his head. “No, ref. Sorry. Not a goal at all. Handball. I’ll just send myself off.” Or Rivaldo. “No, ref, it didn’t hit my face. It was my left testicle. And the Turk didn’t really kick the ball at me at all.” Still, I believe “walking” is now a thing of the past in the modern game and I heard on the BBC World Service last summer that the Indians had been picking the seam off the ball. Not to mention the late South African captain, banned for life. Still, at least he was banned. If they had knighthoods in Argentina, the cheat Maradona would doubtless now be Sir Cheat Maradona. Still, I take some pleasure in the fact that he has turned into a fat git.

12 June 2010
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            Many years ago, in a dingy suburb in the north of Madrid, you and James spent the long, winter week-ends playing pencil cricket. And it was more than a game. It was a ritual. From the preparing of the pencils and the picking of the teams, to the playing out of the match and the filling in of the scorecard. Whilst your wives sat with a couple of glasses of wine and failed to understand the intricacies of what was going on, you pored over crumpled sheets of paper and the thin flakes of pencil shavings. Literary Elevens, they were. You had Thomas Hardy and John Dos Passos to open. Malcolm Lowry at number three. You always tried to cheat for Lowry, help him to get into double figures, but he never did. Hemingway at four. William Faulkner a solid and dependable five. Dylan Thomas, erratic but flamboyant at six. D.H. Lawrence, for some obscure reason, keeping wicket, when not concentrating on the dark powers of his bowels, or the bowels of the opposing batsman. And then the bowlers. Ralph Emerson and Baldwin steaming in to open. Somerset Maugham a medium pace swinger of the ball. And, finally, Shelley, the spinner, who was only used in emergencies and if he could take time off from legislating the world. Lowry and Dylan Thomas sometimes bowled, but not altogether successfully. Dylan Thomas was once accused of chucking and made an unpleasant and rather childish scene. James’ team was filled with “big book” writers. Melville, Fielding, his captain – Cervantes, Walt Whitman, – maybe Balzac, except, being French, maybe not. Raymond Chandler was a cunning leg-spinner who gave Lowry, never one to have his mind totally on the game, all kinds of trouble. (The hip-flask of gin didn’t help matters.) And there was one memorable stand between Dos Passos and William Faulkner. Faulkner had got his fifty and Dos Passos was nearing his hundred when Wives stopped play.

            “That’s enough of that nonsense!” they said. “We’re bored.”


            “We want to do something.”

            “Do you want to play?” asked James foolishly and was rewarded with a clout.

            So it was out into the streets of Tetuán and having skilfully avoided passing any establishments where shopping might have been a possibility, if we except the underwear shop with its window display of big pants pinned brazenly to a cardboard screen, you found yourself in a small, dusty bar near the market, which meant that the Wives could look at bric-a-brac whilst you did some serious drinking and James complained that his stomach hurt. You knew it was partly sour grapes for having been soundly thrashed in the afternoon session and partly an incipient ulcer. Four whiskies later and talk returned to cricket – inevitably, because James was writing a long, lounging lizard of a book which somehow combined the history of the Labour Party with cricket and numerous, wordy footnotes and, perhaps, the occasional errant seagull, and if you weren’t laughing at Van Morrison’s lyrics you’d be talking about books.

            “Probably got myself run out in this Chapter,” he said.

            You knew the feeling. “Stumped?”

            “Just trying to sneak a quick single.”

            “The best run out I’ve ever seen,” you said, to nudge the subject a little further forwards in the ominous presence of a heavy silence, “was on Blue Peter.”

            James looked doubtful. “John Noakes? Chris Trace? Or that awful Val Singleton woman?” he asked.

            “Colin Bland,” you said. “He was being interviewed and they were asking him how he trained. He said he’d stand on the square leg boundary and have the ball knocked out to him, then he’d run in, pick the ball up with one hand, toss it into the other and throw it at the stumps, only one stump visible. And he’d hit it nine times out ten. He did it twice on Blue Peter.”

            “Is that where stumped comes from, do you suppose? You know, I’m stumped.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous! What’s being stumped got to do with not knowing what to do?”

            It was the Wives stopping play again.

            “I think it’s the expression on your face,” you suggested. “When you’re stumped, you’re left looking like a right pillock. As though you don’t know where to put yourself, which is often confused with the expression of someone who doesn’t know what to do.”

            “You don’t say,” said one of the Wives.

           “And it’s easier to say than I’m el-bee-doubleyou-ed,” said James.

1 June 2010
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