Friday, 12 October 2012

"Lament for a Cricket XI" - Kenneth Allott's haunting poem about a universal fascination

Crescent Cricket team, (1905)
Crescent Cricket Team, 1905 (copyright: Irish Jesuits)

We have a large number of family photographs ranged along one wall of the narrow hall-way which leads to our front door. Over the years I've been astonished by how many guests linger in front of them on the way out. Okay, if they know us, there might be some interest in seeing what we were like as children, or finding out what our parents looked like. But they'll often spend as much time gazing at my communal school photographs taken when I was seven and thirteen - even though they don't know anyone in them (and I'm unrecognisable in both). 

I suppose it just shows how, when confronted with old black and white photos of groups of youngsters, we can't help wondering how these fresh-faced young innocents (well, up to a point) turned out in later life. It's hard not to reflect that some of them will be dead, some will be immensely rich, some will have produced good or even great art, or become priests, or MPs, or military heros (or will have discovered they're cowards at heart) - and that there's a chance that one of the faces staring back at us will belong to someone who will by now have committed murder, and that several will have spent time in prison (might still be there). Has that  miserable-looking kid found true happiness - and has the one with a particularly jovial expression turned out to be clinically depressive?

That's why I chose to read Kenneth Allott's haunting poem, "Lament for a Cricket Eleven" at last night's Pass on a Poem gathering in Acton. I came across it last year in Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, published in 1973 (my favourite poetry anthology). Allott was a mid-century poet of some eminence, who taught literature at Liverpool University and edited the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, published in 1952. Evidently an engaging, witty, good-natured chap, he enjoyed a drink and smoked like a chimney: for some odd reason, he imagined that a youthful bout of tuberculosis had somehow inoculated him against the adverse effects of tobacco - he died of lung cancer in 1973. Because I enjoyed this poem so much, I'll skate over the immensely disappointing fact that he was a conscientious objector:
Beyond the edge of the sepia
Rises the weak photographer
With the moist moustaches and the made-up tie.
He looked with his mechanical eye,
And the upshot was that they had to die.  
Portrait of the Eleven nineteen-o-five
To show when these missing persons were last alive.
Two sit in Threadneedle Street like gnomes.
One is a careless schoolmaster
Busy with carved desks, honour and lines.
He is eaten by a wicked cancer.
They have detectives to watch their homes.  
From the camera hood he looks at the faces
Like the spectral pose of the praying mantis.
Watch for the dicky-bird. But, oh my dear,
That bird will not migrate this year.
Oh for a parasol, oh for a fan
To hide my weak chin from the little man.  
One climbs mountains in a storm of fear,
Begs to be unroped and left alone.
One went mad by a tape-machine.
One laughed for a fortnight and went to sea.
Like a sun one follows the jeunesse dorée.  
With his hand on the bulb he looks at them.
The smiles on their faces are upside down.
" I'll turn my head and spoil the plate."
" Thank you, gentlemen." Too late. Too late.  
One greyhead was beaten in a prison riot.
He needs injections to keep him quiet.
Another was a handsome clergyman,
But mortification has long set in.
One keeps six dogs in an unlit cellar.
The last is a randy bachelor.  
The photographer in the norfolk jacket
Sits upstairs in his darkroom attic.
His hand is expert at scissors and pin.
The shadows lengthen, the days draw in,
And the mice come out round the iron stove.
What I am doing, I am doing for love.
When shall I burn this negative
And hang the receiver up on grief?"  

(By the way, the picture at the top of this post isn't the one Allott is referring to - but it's the only one I could find of a boy's cricket team from 1905.)

In case you're not versed-out, I'll give you the thematically-similar "Six Young Men" by Ted Hughes, which the nice lady who runs Pass on a Poem kindly emailed me this afternoon:
The celluloid of a photograph holds them well -
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride -
Six months after this picture they were all dead. 
All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground. 
This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man's land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed. 
Here see a man's photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war's worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil. 
That man's not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One's own body from its instant and heat. 
Here's a photograph of a self-explanatory plaque unveiled at Lumb Bridge near Pecket Well, Calderdale in 2007:


  1. The chap who sold me the house where my children grew up clearly had read neither of these two poems. Among the job lot of stuff he hadn't got room for in his new place was a neglected Fender Precision Bass, which I restored, a Vox AC amp, a few paintings and a photograph of an Eton house rugby 6th form team dated 1913.

    Every time I went into the room where he had left the photograph, wwhich was infrequently, I felt a sense of disquiet that I had no idea what had happened to those confident, happy young men, unaware of the horror they were about to face. Why he hadn't found a place for it wherever he was going, who knows.

    How the first world war destroyed the best of the gene pool, what legacy it left and how we are still paying the price for it, generations later, is a study that will have to wait until we get over the nonsense that all of us potential Neil Kinnocks are born equal, each Kinnock is as good as any one else and all Kinnocks can be improved in equal measure by one size fits all education and social engineering, so that they eventually turn into Pitts.

  2. What very strange things to leave behind! Was he in financial difficulty at the time, your vendor, and therefore distracted? First flat I bought was from a mad Polish female beatnik, who was still moving her stuff out when I turned up to take possession. She informed me that she'd be back for all the crockery and cutlery in one of the cupboards the next day, but she somehow managed to get it all into the van she'd rented for the move within the hour after I informed her that I would smash anything still in the flat when the sun went down (she had been trying my patience for weeks, and it snapped). Obviously she left nothing of any interest behind.

    I think we're all agreed that while left-wing social engineering never turns out Pitts, it certainly turns out things that rhyme with it.

  3. Both haunting,beautiful poems.
    Cricket bats were actually known to have been taken into battle along with rugby and footballs punted and kicked in the mud of Flanders.
    As ex-KCS points out Britain did indeed lose the flower of its youth,and we're paying the price to this very day.
    Whenever I drive or walk past a Memorial or Roll of Honour-and there are thousands of these throughout the UK-I can't help thinking of Owen's "And bugles calling to them from sad shires."

  4. Or indeed Owen's 'And half the seed of Europe, one by one'.