Tuesday, 28 December 2010

It's Cricket: Just a Little Bit about "The Ashes"

[From The Sporting Times, the obituary marking the "death" of English cricket --
this death having been highly exaggerated]

As a (rather newly minted) cricket fan, The Idle Historian has thrilled to the test match action in Australia, culminating today with the England team retaining the Ashes (as they had won the last test series in the UK, played in the summer of 2009). It is a somewhat lonely condition being a cricket fan in Canada -- those who understand the game, or are even remotely interested in it, are few and far between. One must feed on the enthusiasm of one's "twitter friends" in England (if you aren't a follower of the Idle Historian, you should be: @IdleHistorian), and friends and expats of varying cricket-playing nationalities, both near and far.

Cricket, as an ideal, is instantly recognizable even to those who could not tell an innings from an over (the group I erstwhile belonged to). Cricket entails a strong and singular cultural undercurrent: "fair play," and the ideals of sportsmanship and gentlemanly behaviour. It is the game of public schools, august playing fields, and nineteenth-century Boy's Own Paper fantasies. It is traditional, yet resonant today -- the five-day all-day test matches with lunch and tea breaks perhaps highlighting a vision of leisurely sport that we innately miss. It is Home Counties village greens and pitches far-flung across the British Empire. Imperial and simultaneously localized, it is both Englishness preserved and also diffused among large swathes of the globe (though, sadly, not very much in Canada). Everyone understands what the phrase "it's just not cricket" denotes, and by implication its inverse purports to be something very special indeed.

I will refrain from comment about how the game is played -- the laws of cricket. Just touching on this subject would require multiple, and lengthy, blog posts. Even after a general immersion in the game, it is so complex and intricate that one still feels utterly inadequate to the task. As this is an historical blog, however, I will give a brief history of "the Ashes" and the events that led to the eventual naming of this intense rivalry between the two nations.

Australia was the first country accorded the right to play test cricket against England, in 1877. (Though, interestingly, the first international test match was between Canada and the United States in 1844!) The 1882 series, in which Australia toured England, produced a shocking result at the Oval in the single test played. England, within less than 100 runs of a win, suffered an unexpected "collapse" at the hands of the Australian bowlers -- in the immortal words too often seen since across London on Evening Standard newsboards and the like (in the days of the paid ES), in reference to cricket: "ENGLAND COLLAPSE."

The shock of losing a cricket match to mere colonials was immediate and long-lasting. Yet demonstrating that fine "black humour," which is one of the finest British contributions to the world, mock obituaries appeared in sporting publications. The first read:

The second, and more famous, "obituary" was published in The Sporting Times [picture of the original piece at the top of this post]:

In Affectionate Remembrance
which died at the Oval
29th AUGUST 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing
friends and acquaintances
N.B.—The body will be cremated and the
ashes taken to Australia.
The legacy of the term "the Ashes" is highly complex -- the upshot being that its application to the England-Australia test series was not immediate. Though the next tour to Australia was dubbed "the test to regain the Ashes," it was not until the 20th century, and the publication of an English book How We Recovered The Ashes about England's 1903-4 tour of Australia, that the term was more generally used.

And, yes, there is an urn [pictured below]. The exact story of how it came to be, and what it contains (reputedly the ashes of a burnt cricket bail) is somewhat murky and inconclusive. But whatever the truth, it is perhaps secondary to the urn as symbol and myth. Particularly for England, the retaining, or regaining, of the Ashes evokes long-standing passions. England has won fewer series than the Australians, including a long drought throughout the 1990s through to 2005 -- when England won the Ashes on home soil. The Idle Historian was present in England during the series (and suspects this presence must have somehow weighted the balance of luck) and for the celebrations in Trafalgar Square. I am rather less familiar with the Australian perspective, but no doubt their own mythology about the test series fills an equally large cultural space. The battle of the gentlemen on the pitch endures, the Ashes always somehow rising above ordinary sport into the realms of legend.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The "Christmas Truce" of 1914

The "Christmas truce" of 1914 along the trenches of the "Western Front" has become the stuff of historical legend. It occurred rather early in the hostilities, before the war of attrition really set in, but the fraternization of enemies in the spirit of Christmas peace and goodwill has resonated over the years. The paradox of war and destruction on one hand, and camaraderie, humanity, and hope on the other speaks to deep-seated longings. We often wish that things might be otherwise, even for a brief period -- that universal considerations would outweigh the dictates of power, politics, economics or the dreary business of "getting on." We sympathize with the desolation of the soldiers -- far from home, cold, lonely, uncertain of whether this may prove to be their last Christmas, suddenly aware (as we all become after a great crisis, loss, or change has taken us unaware) of all the normal Christmases with our loved ones that we took for granted. We can imagine their hesitation and uncertainty at crossing the battle lines, not knowing if they were walking into a trap. We may sense their longing to fully trust the promises of friendship of their fellow human beings. It must have been the conundrum of daily life writ large -- the courage required to present ourselves as genuine and vulnerable to our fellow human beings with the hope that we will meet with genuine friendship in return, while simultaneously braving the possibility that we might not be.

Historically we know that the "Christmas truce" of 1914 was certainly a real, though not necessarily widespread, event. It occurred for periods of anything from 2 days to the entire period through New Year's Eve. Some areas experienced no let-up in the shelling, and soldiers were certainly killed on both sides on Christmas Day. There are historical rumors of an English-German football match having taken place in "no man's land," though the evidence for it is inconclusive. When and where such truces did take place depended to a great extent on the group dynamics, personalities, and courage of any given company of opposing troops at various points in the line.

The 1914 truce is thought to be more or less a one-off, not to be repeated as the war dragged on to 1918. The blame for this is most commonly placed at the feet of the officers and generals who were insistent that such a breakdown in army discipline and dangerous fraternization would not occur again. It is, however, uncertain as to how front-line enlisted men would have responded to the idea once the conflict had settled into interminable stalemate, and mutual bitterness allowed to fester. It should be remembered, after all, that many soldiers marched off to war in August 1914 with the assurance that it would "all be over by Christmas." Though it was not over, it was perhaps still possible at that early stage to regard the war as an extended schoolboy lark. In later years the spirit of goodwill was, most likely, in shorter supply in all ranks.

I became intrigued, once again, by the subject matter in an article in The Independent, featuring a letter by Private Frederick W. Heath that was first printed in The North Mail newspaper on 9 January 1915. The letter was excerpted from a website about the subject, subtitled "OPERATION PLUM PUDDINGS," (and book, Not a Shot was Fired) dedicated to publicizing some of the first-hand accounts of the Christmas truce. It also contains a good overview for those who have not previously read about the event.

**NB: A fellow historian has since informed the Idle Historian that despite the efforts by the higher command on both sides of no man's line to eliminate fraterniztion at subsequent
Christmases, very localized truces occurred throughout the war -- although they never rose to the level of the 1914 truce. Some regiments have been shown to have been involved in Christmas truces every year until 1917.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Another Kingly Skull -- Bourbon King Henry IV

There seems to have been, for random reasons, rather a lot to do with Kingly skulls recently. I blogged some time ago about the discovery of drawings of the skull of Richard II in the National Portrait Gallery Archives in London.

Now comes news that the skull of the French King Henry IV has been returned to his descendants. The Bourbon King died in 1610, but his grave was pillaged in 1793, during the French Revolution, in an anti-monarchist act. The skull has apparently sat in storage since the 1950s, and has now been positively identified by a group of scientists as authentic.

The full story in The Guardian.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 10 December 2010

The (Hastened) Death of George V

In the wake of the recently announced William-Kate nuptials, I blogged about the intriguing details surrounding the wedding of the future George V to Mary of Teck in 1893 -- namely that she had first been engaged to his elder brother, heir to the throne, who had died before the date of the marriage.

Reading The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner I was reminded of a shocking, but verified, fact regarding George V's death on 20 January 1936. Knowing that the King was nearing the end the royal physician, Lord Dawson, hastened his death just hours after issuing the brief medical bulletin: "The King's life is drawing peacefully to its close." The monarch's death was accomplished with a strong dose of morphine and cocaine in order that the news would first be announced in the august paper of record, The Times, and similar "broadsheets," rather than the downmarket evening tabloids. Regal duty to the end.

[George V's death reported in Canada]

(I should point out that this is hardly breaking news; it has been known since the 1980s -- see this NY Times article -- though that hardly makes it less startling.) Gardiner also points out (p. 374, The Thirties) that Lord Dawson was later to vote against the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill in the House of Lords in 1936, "though of course, then as now, such acts did take place." Indeed.

The death of George V, interestingly enough, coincided with the date of the funeral of the great bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. These men represented two icons of a Britain-that-was and a world that was about to change quite dramatically in the coming decade -- leaving a post-war Britain much diminished in stature.

Postscript: fleming77 has advised me via twitter that the mixture that hastened the end of George V's life was known as a "Brompton cocktail," originating at the Brompton Hospital and having been well-known and available to wealthy patients at the time, long before more modern debates on assisted suicide.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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